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This Sussex Life: Alinery Lianhlawng - "I want to empower other young people"

Alinery Lianhlawng

Alinery Lianhlawng, 27, who graduates with a Masters in Business Administration at the University of Sussex’s winter graduation this year, has pioneered a venture to create school libraries for marginalised communities in her home state in India.

My story really begins before I was born. I come from the small town of Sangau in the Indian state of Mizoram, which is sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar. When the British colonised India they saw us as an uncivilised society. They were not really interested in us until the Assam Tea plantation was developed along the border in the north east of India. Learning that we were head-hunters, and very different from mainland India, they sent missionaries and gave us the Bible. After the British left in 1947, we had twenty years of war fighting for our independence with India. My grandfather was the tribal chief of a village, but his hereditary rights were abolished and my family lost everything.

By the time Mizoram became an Indian state in 1987, the level of education was very poor. We had few resources. I was the youngest of five children, and I never had a new book of my own. Everything was passed down through generations. I taught myself to read and write. When I was young I loved that I went to school in the morning and played in the forest in the afternoon. I didn’t see that we were poor. But when I looked at the TV I saw that there were other places in the world where people had more, I wanted to go there.

I come from a very patriarchal society, but I convinced my father to invest in my education by my outstanding performances in classes. He sold a plot of land so that I could go to an English boarding school in the city. He gave all he had, and so I worked hard and scored in the top ten per cent for class-12 science in the entire state of Mizoram.

I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to attend the Asian University for Women, (AUW) in Bangladesh. It was a life-changing experience. It’s for women from across 20 different countries in Asia. I was there for five years, studying environmental science, and every course I did encouraged us to see ourselves as future leaders.

One of my undergraduate projects involved visiting a construction site on the border with Myanmar, where a lot of the forest was being cut down. I was looking at the environmental impact of the construction, but to my surprise I ended up becoming involved in human rights issues because I could speak the language of those affected. There were sexual violations and property violations. People were losing their homes and didn’t know where to go to complain. That spurred my interest in social economics and international relations.

I was due to take up a scholarship for a masters in America when my father passed away. I was very depressed. For a year I couldn’t do anything. It was also a turning point in my life as I redefined my purpose and goals. Throughout my undergrad years, I was more of a protestor than a solutionist because of what had happened to our tribe, our horrible history, and the corrupt structure and system we were in. There was so much anger in me, things not forgiven and left undone. But then I looked around at other communities — for example Gaza, Afghanistan and Myanmar — where people felt the same. Instead of waiting for someone else to intervene in my community, it was better that I started it. I could do something for my community.

Because of my own experience, I wanted to build a library for my old school. I applied for funding through WEDU, a leadership development organisation supporting aspirational women in Asia. The money paid for the building, but not for books, so I went around knocking on doors, asking for books. I spent my own money on new coursework books, and Labdoo gave us six laptops so that the students can now connect with the world. I was so proud to receive WEDU’s Rising Star award in 2017.

After the first library, there were requests for more. I did the calculations — there were 650 high schools in need of libraries. But these are marginalised communities. It was going to require entrepreneurship — I was going to need to find big organisations, individuals, and corporates who wanted to give and collaborate for social impact.

Initially I thought of doing an MA in Development Studies at Sussex, but I thought I needed to know about finance and business. I needed to know about macroeconomics and how money worked. I am very grateful to Sussex, through its partnership with AUW, for allowing me to study for a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), and I’m proud that I was among the first to receive an International Female Leaders Scholarship.

In memory of my father I set up ‘Rochun: Pay It Forward’, which is a social venture aimed at providing access to educational resources and boosting the leadership skills of young people in Mizoram. Rochun means ‘legacy’ in my language. I feel that this is what my father and grandfather would have wanted me to do. This is not about giving people property and money, but providing resources, knowledge and care to help them to become good citizens of the planet.

I want to empower other young people and so, as part of Rochun, I also mentor around 15–20 students and youths on a weekly basis for further studies. I want to help them to find a purpose in life, and to see that there is so much beyond the world they’re in. We are reaching hundreds of students through libraries and it’s just the beginning!

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2019