Breaking barriers through the love of food

by Lucia Yuki (Senior Admissions and Community Coordinator) & Inês Pinto (Content Coordinator)

Preparing for life after school can be a daunting experience for many students, in particular for those with intensive learning support needs. The road for Parth Dhawan, who graduated from ISB in 2021 after thirteen years at our school, was not so different to that of many young people facing the same hurdles. What made a huge difference to Parth’s journey was the way in which he had been challenged all throughout his time at ISB. The way he was inspired to test his limits, and taught to believe in himself as a person and as a student, gave Parth the resources he needed to be able to thrive in a completely new environment. Now studying different aspects of Hospitality at the Cesar Ritz Hospitality & Culinary Arts Institute in Le Bouveret, Montreux, Switzerland, Parth’s story is one of hope, aspiration, and the importance of creating and inspiring challenge in schools.

Parth started cooking when he was ten years old. He tried out different recipes with his friend and his mom. When he transitioned to Middle School, he was given the opportunity by his teachers to work at the ISB Raiders Cafe’ and the Middle School/High School cafeteria, where he was able to take his interest in cooking and apply it to real-life situations. The functional skills he acquired during this time became invaluable assets to his learning at the Cesar Ritz Institute.

“I miss ISB a lot. It helped me. I am more organised, clean and tidy now, my bag is always tidy. I have my timetables up on my wall, and all the tasks I have to do from Monday to Friday. Since the beginning, I have always been living independently in college. I look at what classes I have, and I go to the class with my friends. It is challenging working in the restaurant in the Institute but my experience at ISB has helped me a lot.”

Mark Soutar, an ISB High School ILS Assistant Teacher, has known Parth ever since he was a young boy, but had the pleasure of working more closely with him during his last three years in High School. During this time, Parth showed an interest in pursuing a career in hospitality, in particular on the culinary side. Mark explained how, once they had all returned to campus after the first lockdown, ISB customized Parth’s learning program so that it centred entirely around the kitchen. For literacy, Parth would focus on creating recipes and building shopping lists. He would go to the Delhaize to buy his ingredients and was responsible for coming up with the recipes he wanted to create each week. For mathematics, his learning would centre around budgeting for those ingredients or learning how to calculate the measurements he needed for them. Along with other faculty members, Mark built a deeply positive relationship with Parth, praising his enthusiasm and his cooperation with other students.

“It was all about self-agency for when he would be living on his own. We wanted to give him more responsibilities in that process of preparing him for life beyond ISB. Outside these gates, not everyone is friendly, and we each have to take responsibility for our lives and for our mistakes. We knew this and we wanted to challenge him positively in this way, and I believe that together, we really achieved this. He takes on new challenges every day now. He brings such positive energy to every environment and is so helpful to everyone. You can throw Parth into any role and he will take it with a badge of honour.”

As well as working at the Raiders Cafe’ and the cafeteria, Parth was also given a leadership role as a Coach in the intensive learning support gym classes. The other students would look up to him and this went a long way in boosting Parth’s confidence. Another opportunity he embraced head on at ISB was his role as a bus monitor, helping other students with mobility challenges get on and off the bus each day. On top of this, Parth also participated in ISB’s Special Olympics and in a number of fun theatre productions. His mother, Preeti, recalls the emotion she felt when she saw Parth speaking on the stage for the first time.

“I need to give all the credit to the teachers at ISB. They knew him better than I did. They tested his limits day after day, helping him to build his social circle and gain confidence in himself. With them, he grew from a non-verbal child to a child who can stand up on a stage and speak out for himself. He grew from being non-independent to being very independent, up to the point where he can commute and communicate on his own. Being on stage for a child who isn’t verbal is an immense challenge, so what his drama teachers have helped him to achieve is truly remarkable. They gave him a speaking role whenever he was able to take it. I had tears in my eyes when I first heard him speak up on that stage, in front of all those people.”

For Parth’s father, Nitin Dhawan, his son’s participation in the school’s Special Olympics was an unimaginable achievement for them. Nitin explained how Parth had always been afraid of animals, horses in particular. And yet, with the support of all of his teachers, Parth was able to win medals, including a gold, for horseback riding in the Special Olympics. Nitin reflected on how ISB helped Parth conquer his fears.

“This could only have been possible at ISB. I’ve never seen any other school provide the same level of care and challenge that exists at ISB. From a very young age, Parth was followed very closely by a team of specialists that helped to enhance his development at every stage of his life. They helped him learn how to communicate with confidence and this was a real game-changer for him. Everyone knows how to speak, but communicating clearly is a whole different thing. It was easy for us to believe that the whole world outside of school was just like ISB, but unfortunately, it’s not. When Parth reached High School, we needed to start thinking about his options beyond school.”

The path from Brussels to Montreux was an arduous one for Parth and his family. His parents and teachers had understood that hospitality was one of Parth’s strengths. He loved to eat and to create recipes, but he also had the people skills that allowed him to build positive relationships with those around him. However, when Preeti and Nitin began to examine their options, they soon realized that very few possibilities are offered to students like Parth when they finish school. Every country seemed to have its own, local program for students with special needs, but it seemed impossible to find a place that offered an English-speaking degree on a more European level. The first glimmer of hope came when they found a UK-based institute that focused on hospitality.

Unfortunately, Brexit happened that same year, and it became very difficult for Parth to obtain a visa to study in the UK. When they finally came across the Cesar Ritz Hospitality & Culinary Arts Institute in Switzerland which is part of Swiss Education Group (SEG), Nitin and Preeti turned to ISB for support in connecting with the institute. This Institute in Switzerland is one of the most prestigious institutes known globally but unfortunately had never admitted a student with Parth’s needs before this time, and although they seemed positive about the idea, it soon became clear that not everyone involved in taking the decision might be fully convinced.

“It was important for me to share ISB’s success story. I told them that ISB started with just one kid. That’s how you always start, isn’t it? Luckily for us, ISB also connected with the school and shared their own story with Parth. They really helped him find his way into college this way. They kept in touch with the institute throughout the entire process. After a few months, the Institute came back to us with an offer of an Honorary Bachelor’s Degree for Parth, the first of its kind.”

Nitin also added that despite the challenges they encountered along the way, and will certainly continue to face, to some extent, they would never have compromised the possibility for Parth to receive an education like everyone else.

“Education allows people to grow and to stand up for themselves and what they believe in. Parth’s time at ISB proved this, and wherever Parth will be in the world, we will always be grateful to ISB. Many people came into our lives and supported us, but ISB acted as the backbone to Parth’s success today. I really hope that the world will become more open to supporting students with learning support needs, because if someone is capable of achieving something, no matter who they are, then they should be given the chance to try it.

ISB gave us that chance.”

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