Climbing for a better education

9 August 2016


By Tarun Varma

From 30th June to 5th July 2016 Kellogg student Tarun Varma (MSc Child Development and Education 2015, MBA 2016) embarked on a significant mountain climb to raise money for Streetlight Schools in Johnanesburg, South Africa. The team comprised Adam Storck (MBA, 2016), American Investor Whitney Tilson, and former US Navy SEAL Mark James. In this blog post, Tarun writes about his trip and why he decided to climb for charity.

I fell like a sack of potatoes as I went down my first abseil. Graceless and unsure, with heavy feet skittish on rock and sliding on the scree. Breathing hard, I dragged my feet up, clipped my self-anchor into the bolt on the rock and breathed deeply. A 500 foot fall into the blue yonder either side, this seemed like the toughest mixed climbing I’d ever done. I was on the Cosmiques arête, back on a mountain after two years and I was feeling like this was a test of my spirit.

Why do I do this I asked myself?

The true answer would not come to me till three days later when I’d regained some confidence in my feet. We’d hiked up to circa 3,100 metres at the Tete Rousse Refuge and the regular pattern of hiking with a load and heavy duty boots was making me think clearer. Climbing represents an education for me. It is a test of my ability. A live example of rising through increasing levels of competence, of going through staggered levels of difficulty and gaining self-confidence to do more in the process. It is a reminder to focus on the journey as much as the goal. The mountains make me live my values.

I believe that every child should have access to learning that enables him or her to rise to his or her maximum potential. Reaching one’s potential is a combination of skills and exposure. Potential is harnessed through an ability to think for yourself and process experiences. Reaching potential means having access to an increasingly difficult set of experiences that test some parts of you and keep you challenged. Processing experiences are based to some extent on having the linguistic, mathematical and social skills to break down the experiences and communicate them. Building quickly on top of that, learning means being challenged with appropriate support. It seems if you challenge people yet support them in the process, they will grow and learn.

Ever since I started work, I’ve been curious about people. What drives them and what makes them learn. Drive and curiosity seem to begin young. In the world you and I live, people who think intelligently about issues are critical. We live in an age where we’re going to see institutional transformation due to the waves of technology, the change in the structure of the nation state and the powerful effects of trade and free movement. Independent thinking enables people to reimagine the world and push forward towards a more inclusive future for the eight and a half billion people we will be in 2030.

Keeping pace with this reality is the face of a three year old who will be ready to enter University or adult hood in 2030. What would you wish every 18-year old in your country had? Perhaps, a view of the world, responsibility for a local, national or global cause, an ability to think critically and contribute, an ability to imagine a positive future and an ability to work towards it.

The challenge is, that future begins now. In your schools, in my neighbourhood, in our parent groups. We’re building lives in the way we educate our progeny in this new world. And we’re doing it at a time when information, knowledge and access to detail is cheap and aplenty. Research will show you that ability to process input, to learn and regulate thinking, to be dogged in your pursuit begins in the early years. Hence, every time I see an institution with the potential to help children learn about and process life, it makes me want to help it scale. This is the reason when I came across Streetlight and its nurturing model of early years education I set out to back it.

I’ve wondered apart from working in education; how can I personally evangelize the cause of learning. One way is to show how good learning a tough task is good for me and how I am living my dreams through it. I dream of an 8,000 meter mountain goal, I know I am not good enough to get there today, but I know I can get there. I know the scaffolds, I know trodding my truest path, one step at a time is a powerful metaphor for what I wish to see in the world. So I go do it.

Adam and I were proud to ascend Mt Blanc and simultaneously raise £6,607  for Streetlight Schools, South Africa. We reached the top of Mt Blanc 08:27 hours on 4th July 2016. We enjoyed the ascent and the two training days of mixed climbing and snow pre Mt Blanc. The Matterhorn had to be called off due to inclement weather and heavy snow beyond the Hornli Hut. Streetlight is now 36% funded for the academic year. Our campaign was shared 266 times on Facebook and we had 1044 visits to the page. We’re proud to take stock at this number. We are working with Ashoka / Lego and other foundations to arrange if Streetlight’s Founder Melanie can speak to a crowd at Oxford / London this summer for a final fundraising push. You can donate online here.

This article is number two in a two-part series of Tarun’s attempt to climb to raise money for Streetlight Schools, read his first post here. You can follow Tarun on Twitter here @tvarma