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October - November 2009


Women of Substance: Queen Honours Asha Khemka OBE

by Krishan Ralleigh

The Principal and Chief Executive of West Nottinghamshire College, Asha Khemka received OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours List for her serivces to Further Education. Asha Khemka was crowned as Asian Woman of the Year in May 2008 for her outstanding contribution to education.

Under her stewardship since May 2006 West Nottinghamshire College has turned into one of the best-performing colleges in the country. In July 2008, the college was awarded ‘Outstanding: Grade 1’ across all categories by Ofsted inspectors, placing it in the top 5% of colleges nationally. Mrs Khemka has also been the driving force behind the college’s ambitious plans to replace its main campus in Derby Road, Mansfield, with a new £96m ‘super-college’ that will also bring together several existing college sites.

Asha Khemka receiving the honour from the Queen

Born in a small town of Sitamathi in Bihar, one of the poorest States of India, but a repository of ancient Indian heritage, culture and glory. Magdha, the ancient name for Bihar, is famous for Raja Janak whose daughter Sita married Lord Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana. The king of Magdha had no child of his own. He was instructed by his family priest to plough a certain piece of land. While ploughing, he found a little baby girl whom he called Sita.This daughter of earth grew into a beautiful woman and chose to marry Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodha. Sitamathi is the place where, says the legend, Sita was found by Raja Janak. It was in Sitamathi that the heroine of this story was born, spent her early years, and got married to a medical student when she was only 15.

With husband Shankar Khemka at 15

Indian women, in their journey of life are supposed to imbibe the attributes of three goddesses of Indian mythology: Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Parvati, the goddess of shakti and loyalty to her husband and Saraswati, the goddess of learning and art.

From L to R: Sneh, Asha, Sheel, Shalini & Shankar

Asha, in her journey of life has many attributes that can be traced to the blessings of all the three goddesses. In the first fifteen years under the guardianship of her parent, she learnt her cultural heritage. After marriage, her loyalty and devotion to her husband and family was like a penance for her harder but fruitful life in a distant land. She was barely 25 when, with her three children, she and her husband decided to settle in the region of England where Robin Hood once roamed. Here, she has won laurels in the field of education culminating in the great honour bestowed by the Queen. Here are her answers to my questions which will prove to the readers that this lady from Sitamathi is no ordinary Indian woman. She was born with the blessings of the three goddesses of Hindu mythology.

1. You were 15 when you got married. All your higher education has been after marriage. Can you recollect what inspired you to go on this arduous journey?

I was indeed married at 15 and spent 20 years keeping the home and looking after my three children, once they had gone off to school I thought, this is my time now. I started a secretarial course at a local college and knew very quickly that I wanted to take my education further. I knew I also wanted to be the boss; in some respects this is what inspired me to further my education, I knew that if I wanted to be the boss I needed to study and work hard. I have always been ambitious and had the desire and motivation to study but my marriage at 15 meant that I had to put my education on hold. Seeing my own children do so well at school inspired me to take up education again. I did not consider my education an arduous task, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it!

2. Yours was an arranged marriage. Marriage and bringing up your children became your first priority. Did you have any co-operation from your in-laws?

I was living in India at the time and the whole extended family was on hand to provide support. We were a very close-knit family and I was very lucky in that my in-laws were very loving and supportive. I also had the advantage of being able to afford some help around the house and with the children - three children in three years. Without this help, life would have been impossible!

3. What sort of feeling did you have when you stepped on English soil in 1978?

Complete excitement! England was a very new and exciting country to me. I had heard so much about it. It was wonderful to see it with my own eyes. I didn’t speak a word of English and had never seen snow before. I will never forget the first winter I was in the country, slipping and falling on the snow and having to pick myself up. But I never felt daunted or scared, mostly I felt very welcome by everyone I met within the country, I truly felt that this was a place where everyone could really succeed and where opportunities were there to be seized.

4. Was the decision of migrating to Britain a joint decision or was it purely your husband's decision?

The decision to move to Britain largely came about as a result of my husband’s career. He was offered a position in the UK as a doctor and we just had to take it. It was too good an opportunity to miss. However, my husband and I have a true partnership that is based on us discussing what is best for the whole family, unlike some marriages where the husband just makes the decision and the wife follows. I’ve never felt like that, I have been encouraged every step of the way by my husband. He is truly supportive of my career as I am of his.

5. Your meteoric rise in the field of education in Britain gives us quite a positive picture of Britain as a ‘land of opportunities’. Surely, there must have been some negative aspects of the British society which you faced in your early years in Britain?

I am a very positive person so have not considered any of the challenges I have faced as barriers or as negative. Yes I have faced some barriers but have always viewed these in a positive way. It is often overcoming barriers that make us stronger and even more determined. I never take no for an answer and never give in! I think that too often people give up after the first set back, if I had taken that attitude I would never have achieved what I have. England is a land of opportunity but opportunity doesn’t fall into your lap, you have to work hard and have an absolute commitment, drive and determination to achieve your goals.

6. You recently visited India with a delegation of British educationists. What was the purpose of the visit and what did you achieve out of it?

The main purpose of our visit was to explore potential linkages between British educational establishments and Indian ones, to look at how we could develop our vocational courses which are a strength of the English system and help Indian establishments develop work skills for the huge amount of economic growth and development happening within India at the moment. It was a hugely successful visit that included a meeting with the chief minister of Rajasthan and the then-president Mr Abdul Kalam. As a result of the visit, we are working with colleges in Rajasthan to develop fashion and engineering courses. We have also hosted a return visit from officials from the Education ministry in Rajasthan. Our eventual aim is to open a vocational centre within the region in partnership with the college, employers and the education ministry.

7. You started your college education at the age of 35. How difficult was it to integrate yourself with the younger college goers? What has been your motivation in the journey of life?

Not at all. Many of the students on my course were the same age if not older than myself. The English college system prides itself on its adult education, mainly offered to students over the age of 19 and I enrolled originally on an adult course. One of the great things about a college in Britain is the mixture of older students with younger students. Both learn from each other and it adds to the richness of college life within the UK. Fear of how you will get along with younger students can put a lot of adults off returning to education and it is one of the biggest challenges we face as a college in recruiting adults. My advice to them is–the reality is never as bad as the fear - so, just go for it!

8. What has been the best thing that success has brought to you?

Success has brought me many wonderful things in life - personal accolades, and recognition from peers and from the outside world for the hard work that you do. I don’t mind admitting that I do like to be in the spotlight! However I think the greatest gift that success has brought is that it has given me the opportunity to use my profile and reputation to make a real difference to the education system and to young people. I do this by being invited to sit on a number of high profile boards and bodies. This gives me the opportunity to influence and challenge existing thinking and try and encourage people to think radically about how we can change things for the better for individuals. Success gives me the opportunity to set things up like my foundation, The Inspire and Achieve Foundation, which brings together other powerful and influential people to give something back to young people who are disadvantaged and disengaged. On a personal note - the highlight of my career to this date - has to be the honour of receiving the OBE and meeting the Queen!

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