A future for my sister

In Romania, high-schools receive more children from urban areas than from communes and villages. Factor in parents working abroad and a pandemic, and being in high-school is not simple at all. A UNICEF program strives to deliver solutions.

Roxana Grămadă (text); Ioana Moldovan (photo)
Nicoleta, 16, fotografiată cu pălăria de absolvent a surorii ei, Andreea, în apartamentul lor de la Bacău
16 June 2021

BACĂU, March 2021 - From her first day in ninth grade, Nicoleta was nervous. “I decided to go to highschool, it was my father's wish, as well as mine,” she says. It was, also, a new beginning: new teachers, new colleagues, a city. She took charge and went.

Her father has been working abroad since she was very small. Her mother passed away 11 years ago. To go to highschool, Nicoleta had left her maternal grandmother’s home in the commune of Valea Seacă de Sascut for the city of Bacau, where her older sister Andreea lived now. On her first day of school, Andreea was at work, so Nicoleta went on her own and looked for her classmates. 

It took time to get used to her new life: in Bacau during the week, with her sister, and at grandma’s in Valea Seaca during the weekend, about an hour’s trip away.

“I was very uncommunicative at first, very shy. I didn’t know anyone… there’s only one other colleague from my village. I was so nervous, I had that fear of being singled out in class,” says Nicoleta.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came and classes moved online. For Nicoleta and many of her colleagues, that meant the screen of their phones. On a surface about the size of her palm, she had to see the faces of her colleagues and teachers, read the materials they sent, and save them so she could do her homework later.

“There were power cuts at times, or the internet broke down, or the platform was buffering on my phone and I fell behind. I was struggling with math, I no longer understood the class.”

Without help, Nicoleta was risking not to keep up with her lessons.

Nicoleta, 16 ani, in apartamentul surorii ei din Bacau

The work that leads to “yes, I want to go to school”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, all children had to adapt to a new learning setup, where the support received at home made the difference between those who manage and those who fall behind. When children can no longer follow what happens in class and nobody offers them a solution to catch up, they tend to give up. 

In rural areas, pandemic aside, children whose parents work abroad are some of the most exposed to the risk of absenteeism and dropout. In their case, as in many others, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened differences already in place.

Official data say over 85,000 Romanian children grow up away from their parents, in the care of only one of the parents or of their extended family. At The Grigore Antipa Technological Highschool, where Nicoleta goes to school, 152 of the total 864 students share that predicament. Every one of them is in need of support to complete their studies.

Nicoleta, 16 ani, privind pe fereatra
Nicolea, facandu-si lectiile in apartamentul surorii ei

For Nicoleta, support came also from the online school project, an activity her highschool was doing as part of a UNICEF program: ”Together for the Future” - Quality Inclusive Education - facilitating the transition from secondary school to highschool.

The program is developed by UNICEF in Romania and its partners, and financed by UNICEF’s own resources, with support from The Botnar Foundation and Lidl Romania. One thousand children in the county of Bacău, at risk of not getting to the ninth grade, are offered counselling and are engaged in activities designed to help them stay in school.

UNICEF and its partners also cover the cost of  training for teachers, school managers, and parents, as well as individual scholarships and microgrants, small amounts of money that help schools put together activities to fight and prevent dropout.

Nicoleta prepara prajituri la cursurile practice din laborator
Nicoleta, in laboratorul de cofetarie
Nicoleta prepara prajituri la cursurile practice din laborator

“UNICEF has helped develop, think, and socialize more, and meet new people. I saw the change… I heard her say she wants to go to school.”


Nicoleta's sister
Nicoleta prepara prajituri la cursurile practice din laborator

School, an engine to power dreams

In the months of July and August of 2020, The Grigore Antipa Technological Highschool organized an online summer school. The children, says Nicoleta, “competed to be part of the project.” All throughout, Nicoleta had a tablet from school, where she could better watch the classes and save her study files.

“Our teachers sent out the materials, problems and how to solve them, we could ask more questions… I had the courage to ask and, since the tenth grade started, I’ve been doing better in math. The week schools were open, I volunteered to solve problems at the blackboard and I asked questions in class. I’m glad I can manage now and I no longer have that fear. The online summer school helped me catch up.”

Andreea, Nicoleta’s sister, has always been the rock for her to lean on and a model to follow. A graduate of an economics highschool in Bacau, Andreea goes to the meetings with her sister’s teachers, encourages and advises her.

Andreea says she will support her sister in anything she decides, but hopes her plans will go further than highschool. Nicoleta could be the first in her family to go to college. “UNICEF has helped [my sister] develop, think, and socialize more, and meet new people. I saw the change… I heard her say she wants to go to school.”

Nicoleta prepara prajituri la cursurile practice din laborator, impreuna cu colegii ei

Nicoleta does not know exactly what she’ll do further on. She’s even considering starting her own pastry business. The laboratory practice makes for the few hours Nicoleta and her colleagues get to return to school, under the coordination of their teachers Maria Stan and Mioara Brândușa Bejan. Today they made apple rolls and mushrooms puff pastries. At the kitchen island in their laboratory, Nicoleta carefully prepares the filo for her apple rolls. Camouflaged under her pastry apprentice and pandemic protection equipment, she is free to dream of the future she desires.