Barstow School senior starts virtual high school in small Asian country

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Kansas City 17-year-old is the founder of a virtual school nearly 7,000 miles away, and she actually did it two years ago, at the age of 15.

"There's a beauty in serving other people," Barstow School senior Ariza Nanji said. "There's something beautiful about knowing you're helping others have a better life."

Ariza's story dates back to her freshmen year of high school, when Mr. Dastanbui came to her school and spoke to her class.

"He just told me about the conditions of his country, and it broke my heart," Ariza said.

That country was Tajikistan, which has a population of 8.7 million, about the size of New York City. Ariza knew she had to do something to help. She just wasn't sure what.

"Originally my plan was to create a book drive," she said.

After reaching out to students in the central Asian country, she learned the need was even greater than she initially imagined.

"They actually told me that there's really no point of getting books if there's nobody to teach them," Ariza said. "That concept just really struck me."

Ariza went to bed that night with her mind racing.

"I had that 3 a.m. epiphany," she said.

That epiphany: Ariza decided to create a virtual school overseas.

"I woke up in the morning and told my parents I want to do that, and my parents were 100 percent supportive," she said.

It was October of her freshmen year at Barstow School that Ariza decided she was going to create a nonprofit called Learning Through Borders, a virtual high school.

Think of it like a certification program. Students still have to attend regular school, but Learning Through Borders teaches college-prep courses, along with English, writing, math, critical thinking, interview prep and resume building.

It gives students a competitive edge when it comes to education and careers after high school.

Chris Mullis, Ariza's advisor and the associate director of the Hybrid Learning Consortium at the Barstow School, called the 17-year-old a force of nature.

"She really cares. She really, really wants to make things better for people in the world," he said.

Since creating the school when she was 15, Ariza and another woman have acted as the two primary teachers.

"The students come in on their Sunday morning around 10 a.m., which for us ranges from 12 a.m. midnight on Saturdays to 4 a.m. in the morning," Ariza said.

She's been doing this every Saturday for 3 years running now.

"I'm willing to take out the time because it gives me such joy to do this. So I really don't mind," the Barstow senior said.

Her virtual school is growing, too. She said 87 students are enrolled this year, and she has a team of 45 people on staff, including a board of directors.

Learning Through Borders receives funding from the Tajikistan government.

"Because of their help in providing projectors, Wi-Fi, microphones, whatever we needed, we have been able to run the program so far, for three years, cost free," the KC teen said.

"In years to come, we're all going to brag about the fact that we knew her," Mullis said.

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