Wages saved in the US build a school in India

Rabindra Roy had been teaching in the United States for just one year when his visit home to India prompted a modest plea from his father: Might he have enough money to fix the straw roof of the local two-room school building, which had been damaged by heavy rains?

Dr. Roy, a chemistry professor at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., didn't think twice about parting with what would in today's terms be $200. From a young age his parents had instilled in him the conviction that education is the only means to comfort and esteem. They had always had the highest hopes for him, and gave every bit of what little they earned - even selling their rice farm when the time came for him to go to college.

"I was happy to fix the roof," says Roy, who until eighth grade walked barefoot on a gravel road to get to school each day. "I have gone to 70 countries and I have seen many things, but this is true everywhere: Education is the greatest asset in life."

So perhaps it was natural that one day Roy began to dream of creating a school in his hometown of Durgapur. He envisioned the school as a means of not only promoting education, but also of honoring of his parents and all they had helped him achieve.

Within a few years he and his wife, Protima Roy - a scholar who, after leaving Calcutta to join him in Springfield, taught science education at Drury) - began to pinch every penny of their earnings.

The decision to build a school in India would impact every aspect of their lives in the US. To this day, the couple live as frugally as they are able. They remain in their first two-bedroom home, and for years had managed to get around town with just one car, an ancient machine that lasted until the day it mysteriously caught fire in the university parking lot.

"I had used it for 22 years," Roy admits. "But I thought about all those young children who were poor in India. How can I buy a car? I can save this money and build a school. I was 100 percent committed to it, and my wife supported me. Because of that motivation, and because of my childhood experience, I accepted this as a challenge."

But if the Roys have lived frugally throughout their years in the US, the school that they created in India is anything but a bare-bones operation. Not content to simply supply the children of Durgapur with the rudiments of education, the couple aimed at offering them the best education practices and most attractive campus possible.

But that meant finding a financing stream to supplement their personal savings. By the time the school opened in 1995, the Roys had amassed upwards of $1 million. Unknown to his wife, Dr. Roy had solicited the help of a colleague and begun to invest small amounts in the stock market.

His scientific approach of sticking to fundamental principles helped him enormously, he says. "I am a scientist," he says. "I followed [the advice of his friend] religiously, and that money doubled."

But the couple knew that - in addition to financial wherewithal - it would require knowledge to build a truly successful school.

So over the course of 20 years, both Roy and Protima came to rely on the advice of Drury President John Moore Jr. Working together, Dr. Moore, Rabindra, and Protima - who has a doctorate in education - were able to shape the curriculum and direction of what has grown into a K-12 school of 2,000 students. [Editor's note: In the original story, Protima Roy should have been credited with having a doctorate in education.]

It became a project with which Dr. Moore says he has felt proud to be involved.

"What he has done is nothing short of amazing, and he has essentially done it all himself," says Moore - who has made the trip to India twice - of his colleague. "I'd hate to see his phone bill," he adds, "because he's on the phone with his staff in Durgapur regularly. He has just stayed in constant touch."

Dr. Roy's primary mission for the English-based school is that it develop the intellectual, emotional, as well as physical growth of every student - and that its doors be open to children from all walks of life. Two framed photographs of Roy's parents hang near the entryway - a constant reminder that the Hem Sheela Model School - named after them - is a place of learning, even for those without means.

One of the goals the Roys have pursued in shaping their school has been to meld the best of education in their home country with the most successful practices in US schools.

"Schooling in India is much different than here in America," Protima Roy says. "There is much more discipline there; the students stand up when their teacher enters the room, and there is no whispering or note-passing. But here, there is more of a focus on the emotional well-being of the student. We strive to incorporate both of these strengths in our school."

The Hem Sheela campus is lush and green, spread out over 20-plus acres of flower gardens and beautiful pathways. The physical beauty of the campus creates a sanctuary for both students and faculty, the Roys say.

Protima - a firm believer in the power of yoga - insists the students are also exposed to meditative activities that create a type of inner sanctuary - a means of helping them focus, develop strength, and, at the same time, relax.

The school has also benefited from exposure to a stream of eager visitors from Missouri, some of whom call the trip to India a genuine learning experience.

Kyle Robinson, one of dozens of Roy's students to visit the Hem Sheela school over the years, says he finds its holistic approach to learning particularly inspiring. "But that's how Professor Roy is," he says. "Teaching is his passion. He's a hard professor; he does not give you an inch at all. But he is completely dedicated to the students."

For now, the Roys continue traveling to Durgapur at least twice a year, staying in near-constant contact with the principal and teachers.

They also dream of expanding operations, as Hem Sheela is now almost at maximum capacity, and Roy is working hard to share his story with the world outside of Drury, hoping other donors will come to feel his passion for such projects.

"When I go to India, when I play with those little children, they come and hold me," he says, grabbing his legs to demonstrate. " And they cry when I tell them I am going back to America.... [The school] is such an inner part of my heart now. I accepted this as a challenge. I must do it, even if I had to sleep on the street, I didn't mind. If I had to eat only one meal a day, I knew I would do it."

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