After graduating from gurukula, a student of TKG Academy in Dallas has been accepted into the Eric Jonsson School of Engineering at the University of Dallas Texas at just seventeen years old.
Vraja Kishor Schomaker has also been awarded a Comet transfer scholarship, and is entering his third year of college with over seventy-five credits. All this despite a terrifying battle with a brain tumor in 2017 that left him temporarily unable to read.
His mother, Gopi Gita, who serves as the Vice Principal at TKG Academy, sees his achievement as proof that when done right, Srila Prabhupada’s gurukula system can positively shape students and give them both deep spiritual lives and successful academic and professional careers.
When Vraja Kishor was born, Gopi Gita and her husband Rupa Madhurya Das, both gurukulis themselves, heard about Aruddha Dasi in Boise, Idaho. Aruddha had homeschooled her sons Radhika Ramana and Gopala Hari using primarily the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the two had been accepted into college at a very young age.
Wanting the same for her children, Gopi Gita called Aruddha, who advised following the tennets of Krishna consciousness and focusing heavily on reading, writing and maths to help increase comprehension.
Gopi Gita took up her suggestions and homeschooled Vraja Kishor at Laguna Beach, before moving in 2007 to Dallas, where she became a teacher at TKG Academy and her son started kindergarten.
Diverting somewhat from Aruddha’s system, TKG Academy taught the regular private and public school curriculum, but integrated the contents with Srila Prabhupada’s books.
“It’s really incredible how the higher levels of philosophical thought that take place when you discuss Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam with children, bring out their metacognition and critical thinking skills, even at second and third grade,” Gopi Gita says.
Teachers at TKG also use methodologies of practice and discovery, facilitating children to figure things out for themselves rather than rote repetition. And they ensure that kids have fun learning. “When you have fun doing something, you’re so much more motivated, and your mind is more activated,” says Gopi Gita.
Parental involvement is an important element too. “When parents ask specific detail-oriented questions about what their child is doing at school,” Gopi continues, “And when they connect with their child on education at home – for instance, practicing multiplication tables in the car, or weighing groceries at the store – the child comes to school much more confident and motivated.”
Other Krishna conscious parts of the puzzle include chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra daily.
“The Holy Name has the side effect of removing ignorance,” Gopi Gita says. “When children come to school in the morning, it can be hard to get them to wake up and be bright and alert. But when we start our day with chanting, prayers, and stories of Krishna, it immediately removes that. I can almost feel it! So that’s a very powerful factor in getting our kids to work intelligently.”
Finally, teachers try to embed in students a Krishna conscious attitude to academics. “They know that, ‘The goal of my education isn’t just to make my parents happy and get good grades – it isn’t just for some material ambition or success,” says Gopi Gita. “ ‘But rather, I have a higher purpose in life, to serve Krishna and to serve humanity. And this work that I’m doing right now will help me get to a place where I can serve according to my nature.’”
All of this is so effective that 60% of TKG Academy students are in the top ten percentile in national standardized tests. And Vraja Kishor, Gopi Gita’s son, started dual enrollment in college at age 14.
“When that happened, we were so happy because my life goal has been to prove that Krishna consciousness and high academics can go side by side,” Gopi says. “We thought if we can do this with our own kids, the system works.”
But in February 2017, Vraju, as he is known, came home from school and began throwing up. At first, his mother thought he had a stomach flu. But then he called her from the other room: “Mom, I think there’s a problem. I can’t read.”
Alarmed, Gopi Gita took him to the hospital, where doctors found three tumors in his brain. Although they were benign, one had burst and was causing inflammation in the Wernicke’s Area, a part of the brain important to language comprehension.
The next few weeks, Gopi Gita says, were the worst of her life. “I was in constant pain – it felt like my skin was burning,” she recalls. “I would be pouring milk into a bowl of cereal, and it would just overflow because I was completely somewhere else. Fortunately, my father, mother Urmila, Rtadhvaja Swami and all my friends were a great support system.”
Finally, during a nerve-racking six-hour brain surgery, doctors removed the burst tumor. But they warned Gopi-Gita and Rupa that at first Vraju may not be able to speak at all or even recognize them.
So when he opened his eyes, and immediately said, “Hey mom,” a wave of relief washed over his family.
“It was miraculous,” Gopi Gita says. “I think the prayers of all the devotees really helped.”
After being discharged from hospital, Vraja Kishor began working with his mother on his comprehension, and within two months, he was able to read again. He still struggles with Ps and Qs, and makes small mistakes when reading aloud, but is expected to reach full capacity.
Amazingly, none of this was able to divert him from his goals. After studying for two more years at community college, Vraju was accepted on July 16th, 2019 into the Eric Jonsson School of Engineering at UTD at seventeen years old.
The achievement came with glowing recommendations from his community college professors, which served to reinforce the effectiveness of gurukula education integrated with study of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
“Vraja Kishor Schomaker is one of the most astounding students that I have met in my teaching career,” wrote his Adjunct Instructor of Mathematics. “He is brilliant, sophisticated, soft-spoken, cerebral, thoughtful, and caring… I was impressed by the breadth of his argumentation and critical thinking skills, as well as his analytical fluency….”
His Professor of Philosophy and Religion added, “Vraja is an exceptional communicator… His style of participation is thoughtful and mature… [he] exhibits exceptional skills in abstract reasoning… It is my assessment that Vraja’s talents rank him among the top 5% of students whom I have taught.”
Vraja Kishor is set to get a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and a Master’s in Big Data within the next three years. After that he hopes to work in Big Data, which is useful for, among many things, finding cures for illnesses. Vraja is passionate about the field, writing in his entrance essay, “The world opens up like a blooming rose of information just by evaluating data.”
Vraju doesn’t like to be praised, feeling like he is nothing special and is just doing what he needs to do. His mother also points out that while she is proud of him, she is not sharing his story to praise her own son. Rather, she is doing it to glorify the education he received at Srila Prabhupada’s school.
“95% of the kids who went to gurukula with my husband and I in the 1970s are not even interested in Krishna consciousness anymore,” she says. “I want to show that gurukula can be something good – that students can have happy lives and regular careers, integrated with Krishna consciousness.”
As well as ensuring her own children have such lives, Gopi Gita is trying to do the same for the rest of the students of TKG Academy. The school has a strong Pre-K to Eighth Grade, as well as a high school program that provides a good path to college. As of this summer, it also has a dual enrollment program where college courses will be offered for free with TKG Academy.
While not all students will choose the same path as Vraja Kishor, they will all have the education, care, love and guidance they need to thrive on their own journey.
“Rather than feeling that they’re different, ostracized, or not able to fit in, we want to enable them to be confident spiritually, materially, academically, and intellectually, and to be able to work with others in the outside world,” Gopi Gita says.