When 25-year-old Harshali Nagrale received an admission offer from the Royal Holloway College in London in January, she was both excited and worried. While being admitted to a Masters degree programme in a reputed university was a feat to be proud of, the high fees for the two-year course were a cause for concern. Nagrale is a first-generation learner from a Dalit community in Maharashtra. The cost of studying abroad – around Rs 40 lakh – was something she could not afford even with her two jobs.

After being unable to secure scholarships from the government of India and international organisations such as the Felix Scholarship, she decided to turn towards a more unconventional method of securing her college fees: crowdfunding. With the help of friends, she set up a fundraiser on the online platform Milaap detailing the breakup of her fees and the work she has done in the field of public policy and education of marginalised communities.

As she began to spread the word about her fundraiser, Nagrale experienced an overwhelming response on social media, especially from people in the Dalit community. “I received donations of around Rs 3 lakh from some Dalit students that had studied and eventually settled abroad, who said I should have the same opportunities they did,” said Nagrale.

Activists from Bahujan and Adivasi communities also helped spread the word about her fundraiser by sharing it on various social media platforms. With around two weeks left for her fundraiser to end, Nagrale has already managed to raise 65% of her total target of Rs 36 lakh.

Nagrale’s experience is not an exception. Over the past few weeks, several students from socially marginalised backgrounds have taken to social media to raise funds for their education in reputed Western universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford and SOAS. Like Nagrale, many of them are first-generation learners from Dalit, Bahujan and Muslim communities. Many have found support from members of their communities who believe that education should not be foregone for lack of funds.

The students who opt for fundraisers have already exhausted other options of funding. Scholarships from the Indian government are usually unavailable for students that are completing a second Masters degree, which most of the fundraising students are. Scholarships from universities are highly competitive, and, said Nagrale, many marginalised students are unaware of these options. Many students are denied loans by banks because of a lack of collateral.

A number of the students who have taken to social media with such appeals are interested in studying aspects of history and social sciences that have to do with their communities and their struggles. Maknoon Wani, a student from Kashmir who has appealed for funds for a Masters degree at Oxford, wants to study the impact of internet shutdowns in Kashmir. Sanobar Fatma, a Muslim student, wants to understand the discrimination against minorities in South Asia in her Masters programme at Cambridge University.

A Muslim student who requested anonymity said his fundraiser was met with enormous support from Muslim professionals. “I was surprised to see the community band together on Twitter to contribute towards my fundraiser in large amounts,” he said. “A lot of the messages I received were from other Muslims who were happy to see someone from an underprivileged background achieve this.”

Journalists and academics from these communities are also coming forward to share fundraisers of several students, in a bid to amplify marginalised voices in academia.

Educate, agitate, organise

According to Nagrale, there is a strong belief among Ambedkarites that education is the only way towards empowerment, in keeping with BR Ambedkar’s advice to the community: “educate, agitate, organise”. She received financial support from the Ambedkarite Association of the United States, as well as other Ambedkarites within and outside India.

“Funding the education of marginalised students is a way of challenging the status quo – of making the foreign universities more accessible to future generations of our students,” she said.

The effectiveness of this strategy was apparent in the fundraiser organised to help Dalit rapper and activist Sumit Samos Turuk fund his degree at Oxford University. Turuk’s friends and other activists in the Dalit community helped in amplifying his effort, leading to him raising his target amount of Rs 38 lakh in just three hours on June 2.

While various communities are coming together to support students and their dreams, the candidates have had their share of negative comments. Turuk told The Print that some people had told him to take a loan and not ask others for money. Nagrale faced questions whether she had earned the right to ask for donations. “I think admission into a competitive university should itself speak for my merit, and so I choose not to justify it to strangers online,” she said.

Nagrale is supposed to present her college with a financial statement by June 30 to retain her admission offer. For now, she’s optimistic she’ll be getting on the plane to London soon. “I’m confident that I’ll be able to raise the money – I’ve received help from my community and some Ambedkarite organisations that want to help me with a loan,” she said.