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13-year-old Indian girl enrolls in microbiology master's after father sells land for tuition

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LUCKNOW, India - In a country where many girls are still discouraged from going to school, Sushma Verma is having anything but a typical childhood.

The 13-year-old girl from a poor family in north India has enrolled in a master's degree in microbiology, after her father sold his land to pay for some of his daughter's tuition in the hope of catapulting her into India's growing middle class.

Verma finished high school at 7 and earned an undergraduate degree at age 13 — milestones she said were possible only with the sacrifices and encouragement of her uneducated and impoverished parents.

"They allowed me to do what I wanted to do," Verma said in an interview Sunday, speaking her native language of Hindi. "I hope that other parents don't impose their choices on their children."

Sushma lives a very modest life with her three younger siblings and her parents — eating, sleeping and studying alongside them in a cramped single-room apartment in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state.

Their only income is her father's daily wage of up to 200 rupees (less than $3.50) for labouring on construction sites. Their most precious possessions include a study table and a second-hand computer.

It is not a great atmosphere for studying, she admitted. "There are a lot of dreams ... All of them cannot be fulfilled."

But having no television and little else at home has advantages, she said. "There is nothing to do but study."

Sushma begins her studies next week at Lucknow's B. R. Ambedkar Central University, though her father is already ferrying her to and from campus each day on his bicycle so she can meet with teachers before classes begin.

Her first choice was to become a doctor, but she cannot take the test to qualify for medical school until she is 18.

"So I opted for the MSc and then I will do a doctorate," she said.

Sushma — a skinny, poised girl with shoulder-length hair — is not the first high-achiever in her family. Her older brother graduated from high school at 9, and in 2007 became one of India's youngest computer science graduates at 14.

In another family, Sushma might not have been able to follow him into higher education. Millions of Indian children are still not enrolled in grade school, and many of them are girls whose parents choose to hold them back in favour of advancing their sons. Some from conservative village cultures are expected only to get married, for which their families will go into debt to pay exorbitant dowry payments, even though they are illegal.

For Sushma, her father sold his only pieces of land — 10,000 square feet (930 square meters) in a village in Uttar Pradesh — for the cut-rate price of 25,000 rupees (about $400) to cover some of her school fees.

"There was opposition from my family and friends, but I did not have any option," said her father, Tej Bahadur Verma.

The rest of Sushma's school fees will come from a charity that traditionally works in improving rural sewage systems, which gave her a grant of 800,000 rupees (about $12,600).

"The girl is an inspiration for students from elite backgrounds" who are born with everything, said Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International, who decided to help after seeing a local television program on Sushma. She is also receiving financial aid from well-wishing civilians and other charities.

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