From India to Centerville: How a college education made all the difference

Ritika Sharma Kurup working to change lives of children who live in poverty

Education has the power to change lives. And it is often in some of the most impoverished countries in the world, where education ends up being the vehicle that lifts people from poverty.

Ritika Sharma Kurup of Centerville was born in India, a country with an estimated 84 million people living in extreme poverty. But Kurup’s parents were determined to change their lives and those of the future generations of their family.

“My parents were first generation college students,” Kurup said. “We moved around a lot when I was a child and I really experienced India. I saw how different my life was because of my parents’ education.”

Kurup’s life was forever changed by those early experiences that also ended up affecting her choice of career. She immigrated to the United States in 2000 to attend The Ohio State University where she earned a master’s degree in social work and public policy.

“Because of my personal story, I decided to go into social work,” Kurup said. “I developed a passion for supporting children living in poverty.”

After marrying and having two sons, Kurup realized raising her children in the wealthiest nation in the world gave them resources and opportunities beyond her own grandfather’s wildest dreams.

“I started my career in Troy as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate),” Kurup said. “I learned a lot about the impact of policies on children of color living in poverty.”

When Kurup’s youngest son was preparing to attend school, she was presented with an opportunity to switch gears with a position at Learn to Earn Dayton. She became director of early learning, leading community-wide learning initiatives and developing and launching the local race equity education agenda.

“I worked with great partners in Dayton and learned much about the community,” Kurup said. “I had not fully appreciated the impact of race on outcomes for children until then.”

Kurup also wanted to give back to the community, so she volunteered to work with kindergarten students in Northridge on reading.

“I was reading to five children one day and one of the little girls was enamored by my accent,” Kurup said. “She wanted to know why I talked this way.”

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Kurup showed the children a map, pointing out India, and explaining that people talk differently in different places. Kurup then explained that she came to Ohio to attend college.

“I asked the children where they wanted to go to college,” Kurup said. “One little boy said he wasn’t going to college, but he was going to jail!”

That one comment stopped Kurup in her tracks. She was desperate to know what happened in that child’s life. She began looking at data for Montgomery County and specifically the differences in outcomes for children based on race and gender.

“I started educating myself and I have been on this journey ever since,” Kurup said. “I truly believe that all our children should have the same opportunities to succeed and skin color should have no impact.”

Today, Kurup is working for a Cincinnati-based organization called “StriveTogether” as the senior director of learning and activation. She has been in this role for the past three years.

“The StriveTogether model is serving every child from cradle to career,” Kurup said. “We work with 70 communities across the country.”

StriveTogether grounds all the work they do in data, specifically looking at the impact of race and poverty. In 2017, CEO Jennifer Blatz named racial equity as key to quality education.

“It’s a great environment for me, and for my colleagues to learn and lead,” Kurup said. “It’s not the work that many organizations are doing in practice.”

By working with their network to dismantle the current systems that are often setting children up for failure, the StriveTogether team aims to create lasting change.

“We look at what the data is telling us,” Kurup said. “And we ask why.”

One of the long-accepted notions that the organization is working to change is the idea that children living in poverty are not capable, nor have the desire to succeed in school. Kurup said school funding is not equitable and that also makes a big difference in outcomes.

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“My children are in Centerville Schools, and it has been an outstanding experience both in the classroom and out,” Kurup said. “They have access to many opportunities that have shaped them.”

Kurup was recently recognized by The Ohio State University College of Social Work Alumni Hall of Fame with a Distinguished Career Award for her professional achievements.

“What has changed things for my children is my own parents’ decision to persevere and go to college,” Kurup said. “There is a ripple effect across generations, and there are many children who may never go to college because of the lack of opportunity and resources available to them.”

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