2020 Annual Letter

John Schupbach
Dec 28, 2020 · 10 min read

Dear students, families, donors, teachers, partners, volunteers, & friends,

This has, without a doubt, been both the most difficult and most inspiring year in the history of Squalor to Scholar. Despite the unprecedented challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented, it is forcing the world to completely rethink the delivery and future of education. Although we’re currently sacrificing like everyone else, we’re excited by the prospects of radical changes to the delivery of education globally and our ability to use these trends to improve our impact. Look at the picture above and let it sink in. This is a monumental achievement that fundamentally changes the future of learning, jobs, and opportunity.

Anshu and Chandani (back in 2013)
Anshu and Chandani during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020)


Beginning in March, the Indian government enacted swift and sweeping lockdowns to slow the spread of SARS-Cov-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. The lockdowns and restrictions have been among the strictest in the world. With few exceptions, most were confined to their homes.


Schools remain shut down as we approach 2021. Classes held by our affiliated schools have shifted entirely online, predominantly to Zoom and WhatsApp.

Of our S2S students actively engaged in virtual education, approximately 50% are attending live video classes via Zoom with the other 50% conducting live WhatsApp conference calls with assignments and teaching resources pushed via group chat.

In the communities in which our students live, WiFi is practically nonexistant. However, access to high speed cellular internet has flourished in recent years, led by a proliferation of inexpensive smartphones, affordable data, and widespread adoption of mobile payment, entertainment, social media, and government programs. Many students are able to access hundreds of gigabytes of data monthly at affordable rates such as 200-300 Rupees (US$2.75–4) per month. Many of our students are accessing these platforms with inexpensive mobile phones which cost around 3000–4000 Rupees (US$40–55).

Sweety (2018)
Sweety (2020)


Even though smartphones are becoming necessary for daily life and vital for ongoing education, some of our students still do not have access to one. This is a big problem and one that we remain actively attempting to solve by locally acquiring additional phones and devices for our students. If you wish to help in this area, we would love to have your assistance. Please email me.

However, even with adequate access to devices, the effectiveness of this new frontier of virtual education is not yet entirely clear. For the vast majority of our students, home consists of small (approximately 1.5m by 2.5m), single-room, windowless, unventilated rooms in which they often reside with their parent(s) and up to as many as 5 siblings. With people confined to their homes in the COVID era, this is obviously not an environment optimized for education.

We are tremendously proud of our students who continue to study hard and do the best they can with what they have to further their educations within these unprecedented times.


At the time of writing, India has had the second-highest cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 in the world, trailing only the United States. In India, 10.1 million people have contracted COVID-19 and 147,000 people have lost their lives as a result.

Source: The New York Times

To our team, it is personal. More than 35 members of Mamta’s extended family alone have contracted the virus and 4 have sadly lost their lives.

Fortunately, if not miraculously, our students and their families have remained largely safe from COVID.

A familiar enemy, tuberculosis (TB), has been the only significant infection among our students this year. We have one student currently receiving treatment and this student is safe at home.


To date, 222 students have been a part of Squalor to Scholar across multiple channels. We currently have two main channels of support: (1) our flagship sponsorship program and (2) our Right-to-Education (RTE) program.

Muskan (right) and family (2018) after a school dance performance

Our flagship sponsorship program is what most people who know S2S are familiar with. It consists of donor-funded sponsorships of students that supplies tuition scholarships as well as book, supply, uniform, tutoring, and emergency resources to our students and their families. We currently have 127 active students in this flagship scholarship program.

Muskan (center) and her sister Bindiya (left) on Zoom (2020)

Our RTE program is centered around promoting, obtaining, and sustaining government-funded scholarships. This program has grown in recent years as a result of an increased number of and improved ease of accessing government-funded scholarships. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE) was a legislative initiative by Indian Parliament in 2009 that enacted new funding channels and enrollment requirements for schools. Part of this program provides scholarships for students to attend private schools in a process similar to S2S. However, obtaining access to these scholarships requires diligence, time, and keen understanding of the application criteria and requirements. Our team has worked hard to help improve access to RTE scholarships and we anticipate this program will take off in the years ahead.


We refer to students who no longer receive regular financial or logistic support from S2S as alumni. We do this because we believe that even if a student does not reach a traditional milestone, his or her efforts are commendable and important.

Anita (2018)
Anita in front of her home (2018)
Mamta discussing with Anita’s mother (2018)

Our students live in a tumultuous world at baseline. COVID is just another variable in an already complex equation of forces. Despite our best attempts to keep everyone on track toward academic success and the eventual economic and societal freedoms we encourage, some students and families have begun to paddle away from the group. Though sad to us, this is their right and we remain and will continue to remain in close contact with these alumni of our program and will always be there for them as they enter adulthood.

The achievement of a 12th grade education, though desirable, is a very uncommon outcome for children within the communities in which we work. Many children still never attend formal school at all. The fact that our students are capable of far more than they are given the opportunity to achieve is why we started Squalor to Scholar. However, even for students who do not complete all 12 years, our program catapults our students into an entirely different life trajectory, imparting appreciation of knowledge and education for generations to come.

Left to right: Gudiya, Pooja, Anita, Kajal (2018)

Regardless of why students might become alumni, we make every attempt to remain in contact with these children and young adults to ensure they continue to thrive and flourish on their chosen journey.

One of the most common reasons a student becomes an alumnus is when his/her family moves away from our region, usually back to a native village. This has happened more often this year due to COVID. However, a family move does not necessarily mean a student moves with them. Even before COVID, some families who have moved away have made arrangements for their children to remain living with family or friends nearby us so that their children can remain a part of S2S. If this does not highlight the importance of our work, I don’t know what does.

Aarti (six o’clock), Neeraj (eight o’clock), and friends (back in 2013)
Aarti (center) and Neeraj (right) with their family (2020)

Other students have become alumni because they suffered tragic family losses such as unexpected deaths of their mother or father. Such events would be difficult for any family, let alone for our students. These events often shift family dynamics in ways that, despite our best efforts to achieve a resolution, prevent them from attending school. However, we are also often able to help make arrangements in orphanages, with friends, and with other generous community members to provide more support than ever to these unfortunate students.

Some students become alumni because their families’ financial situation improves such that they no longer require external support. These are a big win for all.

Lastly, and perhaps most difficult to contend with, are the constant temptation and pressure for our students during their adolescence to pursue employment to earn money or get married. Though our team works tirelessly to do what we together believe is in the best interest of each student every day, we are only here to help guide and empower. At the end of the day, our students and their families decide to do what they believe is best for them. We respect and honor this right and privilege.


Despite all the unfortunate parts of 2020, there are silver linings. COVID-19 has shredded the rule book for how to provide healthcare and education.

Roshan, member of our oldest class (back in 2018)

In the past, barriers to high-quality education included location, school capacity, cost, and time of day. We founded Squalor to Scholar to help address and reduce these traditional constraints. However, today, the barriers to high-quality education are internet access, data, an environment conducive to learning, and an organizational structure that glues all the pieces together and provides the motivation necessary to encourage optimal growth and empowerment.

Such a rapid and transformative shift in the needs and desires of students has left a monumental gap between what students need right now and what products and services are available to them.

Neha and Ajeet, members of our oldest class (2020)

Like most schools around the world, our affiliated schools are currently attempting to replicate the in-person school experience online through Zoom and WhatsApp. This is a noble and necessary effort at this time but only a temporary solution.

We believe the future lies in dedicated online programs designed for an online audience, accessible anywhere, anytime, at a cost far lower than any traditional educations.

Our students are currently dabbling in numerous online schools and programs. We’ve yet to land on a perfect solution, but we’re working on it and we believe the future of education is bright and that we and our students have an important role to play redesigning how education is provided and accessed. We are well positioned to provide the organizational structure to serve as that glue and motivation.


This annual letter would be woefully incomplete without recognizing the single person upon whom Squalor to Scholar depends, Mamta Ratra.

Mamta (center) with her daughters Naima (left) and Naisa (right)

Mamta is Superwoman. Not only does she raise her two generous and caring daughters Naysa and Naima, support her husband Shri, and house volunteers from around the world, she also personally communicates with and keeps track of the educational progress and needs of all of our students, builds outstanding relationships with all of our school administrators and faculty, and serves as the emergency point of contact for literally thousands of people. She fills out thousands of applications and government documents for hundreds of people on a regular basis. She communicates with donors, partners, teachers, parents, and students daily. In short, Mamta does more in a day than most people do in a month. The impact she makes in a year is more than most people make in a lifetime. Without her, none of this would be possible. To you, Mamta, thank you for your selfless compassion and inspiring sacrifice to serve others. Thank you as well to Naysa, Naima, and Shri for the work they do as well to support Mamta in return.

Mamta and Shri (back) with their daughters Naysa and Naima


We are beginning a small pilot program to allow selected individuals to mentor and tutor students who request it. If you are interested in tutoring or mentoring a student, please contact me at john@squalortoscholar.org.


We remain a 100% donor-funded 501(c)(3) organization and want to thank our donors for your continued generosity, especially in these trying and uncertain times. If you are interested in donating, donations can be made online at squalortoscholar.org/give. There are a two common ways to give: a recurring sponsorship or a one-time donation.

Screenshot of squalortoscholar.org/give

The most common donation pathway is via recurring sponsorship, either $30/month or $360/year which provides sponsorship of an individual student.

One-time donations can be made for any amount and are used to support the greatest need unless otherwise directed.

To learn more about how, where, or what to donate, please visit squalortoscholar.org/give or email us at: support@squalortoscholar.org

No matter how you choose to give, we are grateful.


To those of you around the world risking your health, resources, and wellbeing to aid others, thank you. If you’re feeling tired, uncertain, afraid, or alone, you are NOT alone. Now a second-year Emergency Medicine Resident Physician at Mayo Clinic, I’ve spent most of the year in the Emergency Department and witnessed first hand the death, distress, fear, depression, and separation caused by the pandemic and our response to it.

To our donors who support Squalor to Scholar, we are continually grateful for your generosity and compassion that make this work possible.

To our students and families, we are proud of you and your efforts this year to keep working harder than ever and going above and beyond to maximize the opportunities we have helped to provide. We are here to do whatever is in your best interest, always.

Wishing you all a happy new year! Stay safe!

John Schupbach, john@squalortoscholar.org

Students from our oldest class (now in 9th grade) on their first day of school ever in 2012

Squalor to Scholar

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