From Shanti Bhavan to Duke

Naveen Siva’s story shows triumph of education over adversity

-By Charles Givens

December 21, 2023

Junior Computer Science and Economics major Naveen Siva has traveled far to make it to Duke’s campus. Siva was born into one of the lowest levels of the caste system in India, known as Dalits, or “untouchables.” Although Siva’s parents did their best to make ends meet through manual labor, generational poverty meant there was little hope for upward economic mobility. When a neighbor informed Siva’s father of the Shanti Bhavan school, they took the chance and applied, and soon after the four-year-old Siva was accepted.

Portrait of Naveen Siva
Naveen Siva (photo courtesy of Karsh International Scholarship Program)

Shanti Bhavan (Haven of Peace in Hindi) was founded by Dr. Abraham George in 1997 and is a non-profit residential school in Baliganapalli, India. The school offers free high-quality pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education to children specifically from the Dalit community. The goal of the school is to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination these individuals face.

Through Siva, the Duke India Initiative was able to contact Dr. George who will travel to Duke to be a guest speaker on Wednesday, January 17th from 5:30. More details can be found on the Duke Calendar event page here.


Siva remembers the early days of joining the Shani Bhavan school and how quickly his education began. “One of the criteria that Dr. George wanted was for us to learn English in a good, playful environment,” said Siva. “It was kind of amazing that within three months, we were able to talk to our caretakers in English, and it was definitely not perfect, but I don’t know how it happened.”

As a residential school, Shanti Bhavan hosts students year-round, except for winter and summer breaks. Siva recalls the stark contrast between life at Shanti Bhavan and living conditions back home. “I remember having so much comfort, because I had a bed for the first time,” said Siva. “I had running water, I had good food. I was wearing good clothes. I had shoes on because back at home we didn’t have shoes.”


Once he graduates, Siva wants to contribute to the future success of Shanti Bhavan. He also aspires to break the cycle of poverty that his family is trapped in. “My family’s generational poverty has existed over hundreds of years, and they have all been suffering,” said Siva. “My hope is that, within my lifetime, I’m able to change that.”

Siva also would like to secure a brighter future for the larger community of Dalits. “I’m not sure how exactly, but I definitely want to help kids in some way,” said Siva. “I want to give them a quality education and I want to start a scholarship program to help as many kids get good scholarships.”

Siva appreciates the transformative power of scholarships. In addition to Shanti Bhavan, he has also received a scholarship to attend Duke – he is part of the Karsh International Scholarship Program.


Arriving at Duke, Siva felt ready for the next phase of his education. He introduced himself to other students from India, creating new friendships and disregarding borders, backgrounds or beliefs. While some initially hadn’t heard of Shanti Bhavan, Siva found camaraderie with students from across India and other countries. The diversity of Duke student population resonated with him. Siva, along with other graduates of Shanti Bhavan, benefited from a high-quality education. “I’m from an almost no-name village, I went to Shanti Bhavan, and yet here I am at Duke — the same level as someone from [a prestigious school]!” said Siva. “Your background doesn’t matter too much here at Duke. It is more like ‘Okay, you’re here now. What are you going to do? Let’s do something cool!’”

Siva was part of an early cohort of students who applied to schools outside of India. Dr. George’s son, Ajit, suggested to Siva’s class that they try out the SATs and see what could come of it. Siva and his classmates studied from an SAT book for a couple of months and each student was given one chance to take the exam. Acceptance letters from the likes of Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke and Middlebury College soon followed, which showed the instructors at Shanti Bhavan that they could now look to expand their students’ potential abroad.

Shanti Bhavan students happily running through the school grounds.
Shanti Bhavan students happily running through the school grounds (Photo courtesy of Shanti Bhavan)

While Siva’s graduating class of 16 have all gone their separate ways to schools around the world, they keep in touch through texts and calls. “We’re very close, and I know all their secrets,” said Siva jokingly. “It’s funny because if you have two or three of us sitting in a room, and one person says something, everyone is able to fact check them immediately!”

Siva spoke with his mother recently about how difficult it was for her to let him go away when he was only four years old. Ultimately, she was glad to have made that decision. Siva and graduates of Shanti Bhavan before him show how powerful education can be. It can fundamentally change lives. Naveen Siva’s path to Duke is not just a personal triumph; it shows how education can bring hope to those in the direst situations.