A few pockets of snow linger in shadowed corners of the Westminster College campus. Salman Sayyed, head covered in a borrowed ski cap, shivers. The 33-degree air is new to the Mumbai native, who has lived in Utah for less than three months.
“I have a heavy jacket in my bag,” he says, nodding to the full pack slung over his shoulder. The library is just a few hundred yards off, and gearing up simply for the short walk from the school cafeteria seems impractical.
But practicality is kind of Sayyed’s thing. It always has been. It was practical when he dropped out of school at eight to help his mother collect trash and resell recyclables to feed his family. It was practical to bundle up their belongings and family home—nothing more than a plastic tarp—and hide it among bushes to keep it from being stolen while they worked. And it was practical to dart between cars at one of Mumbai’s busiest intersections, hawking English-language bestsellers for just more than $3 a day.
Now, in Salt Lake City, Sayyed is farther away from home than he could have ever imagined, considering he first heard the word “Utah” less than two years ago. He came with lofty goals for his return. He wants to help change the system that has kept kids like himself in poverty. To that end, he started a $56,000 Master in Business Administration program at Westminster in August (the tuition alone would cover his parents’ monthly rent and bills for 52 years) and has plans to launch a non-profit focused on Mumbai street kids.
“In India, there are so many poor students who are passionate about studying, but cannot complete [school],” Sayyed says. “My goal is to start a tour company with students to create job opportunities as guides and to support their education.”
Sayyed’s story reminds Westerners of the hit movie, Slumdog Millionaire. But two women replace the role of the film’s game show. Caroline Nagar, whom Sayyed now considers a second mother, met 15-year-old Sayyed as he sold books at the crowded Haji Ali intersection and urged him to go back to school after a seven-year hiatus. Utahn Beth Colosimo helped him get to Salt Lake to earn his MBA.
Sayyed was born on the pavement near the family tent when Hindu-Muslim riots broke out across Mumbai and prevented his mother from getting to the hospital. He had no birth certificate or documented evidence he existed. He dropped out of school after second grade, teaching himself how to read English from the books he sold and the billboards lining the major thoroughfare. Several friends, also booksellers, were hit, some killed, by cars.
Nagar, then a teacher at the Akanksha Foundation, a nonprofit that educates children in urban India, had a hunch Sayyed would do well if he returned to school. She convinced him to give up bookselling. A year later Sayyed was a full-time student—in three years he’d moved through the equivalent of eight grades.
Sayyed had one year instead of the usual 10, to study for the tests necessary to move on to junior college, where he earned back-to-back accolades as Student of the Year. In 2017 he graduated from Kischunchand Chellaram College with a bachelor’s in humanities and arts; his final semester was at Houston Community College via the U.S. State Department’s EducationUSA program.
Back from Houston for two months, Sayyed met Colosimo, executive director of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, as he guided a group of Salt Lake Community College and Westminster students and staff visiting India in the summer of 2018. The two started chatting on the long bus ride from into Mumbai.
“He started unraveling this jaw-dropping story,” Colosimo recalls. “He was just super passionate about wanting to change the trajectory of his life, and that was the springboard to overcome so many obstacles without having any real family guidance.”
Sayyed shared his plans to go to graduate school in the United States, and Colosimo left India with a promise to keep in touch about school in Utah. “A lot of people come and say a lot of things,” Sayyed says. “So I was just like, ‘let’s see.’”
They did stay in touch, and Colosimo started planning to bring Sayyed to Utah. “I was sending him information about the University of Utah and Westminster and we just started ticking off all the things that needed to happen,” says Colosimo—all the basic college application requirements plus English language exams, student visas and financial documents. By May 2019, Westminster accepted Sayyed.
Colosimo signed on as Sayyed’s sponsor—she makes sure his tuition is covered, he lives in the Colosimo’s basement apartment and he’s quickly becoming a part of the family. He works the maximum 20 hours a week at two on-campus jobs and to offset expenses, Colosimo has set up “Salman Education Fund” fundraisers at Mountain America Credit Union and on Go Fund Me.
For Colosimo, the reason she committed to bringing a virtual stranger across an ocean and into her home has become increasingly obvious.
“He is not prideful about how he’s overcome circumstance, and he’s super happy to be giving back,” she says. “I think he’ll carry that forward in his career and the social impact he wants to see in his country. He wants to see kids get educated and he wants to help change the course of India. He can be a real role model.”
For more information about Salman, check out his Youtube channel here.