ALTHOUGH this story ends in East Staffordshire, it begins in a place called Sitamarhi – a small town in the Indian state of Bihar.
This was the place where the woman who became the first Indian-born female for 83 years to be handed a Damehood was born – on October 21, 1951 – and raised.
Asha Khemka’s remarkable rise in the UK started when, after getting married at the age of 15, she came to the country in 1978 with husband Shankar, a 19-year-old medical student, and their three young children – daughter Shalini, and sons Sheel and Sneh.
While her husband forged a successful career in the medical profession, which now sees him work as a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Burton’s Queen’s Hospital, Dame Khemka was a full-time housewife for 20 years.
Despite the 62-year-old arriving in Britain in 1978 with virtually no knowledge of the English language, she taught herself to speak it by watching children’s television programmes with her young children.
After raising her children, she decided to enroll on a secretarial course at college before progressing to a business degree.
She began her career as a college business studies lecturer in 1987 and through her dedication and determination, enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of further education.
In 1995, Dame Asha moved to Tamworth and Lichfield College as deputy head of faculty for business studies and within two years had been promoted to director of quality.
She joined Stafford College as assistant principal in 2001 and was instrumental in preparing the college for its successful Ofsted inspection.
In April 2004, Dame Asha was appointed deputy principal of New College Nottingham with overall responsibility for curriculum, quality, standards, student services, staff development and data.
She took over as principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College in May 2006. Since then it has become one of the largest and most successful colleges in the country.
Since joining West Nottinghamshire College in May 2006, Dame Asha has helped transform it into one of the most successful colleges in the country.
It is currently the largest college provider of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds in England.
She serves on several national educational boards and committees, and is the founding chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC) India – an organisation set up to progress links between educational institutions in the UK and in India.
In February 2013, Dame Asha joined Prime Minister David Cameron’s trade mission to India.
In 2008, Dame Asha founded the Inspire and Achieve Foundation – a charity that has helped more than 400 young people classed as ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment and training) get their lives back on track through outreach activities leading to specially tailored vocational programmes.
In the same year she picked up an Asian Woman of Achievement award for her outstanding contribution to education.
Her good work has culminated with her being appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the New Year Honours List.
She is the first Indian-born woman for 83 years to be awarded the DBE, which was in recognition of her services to education.
It came five years after she was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
She said: “I am rarely lost for words, yet I am finding it difficult to express how proud and honoured I feel.
“This is without doubt one of the proudest moments of my life, along with my wedding day, the births of my three children and becoming a college principal.
“Although it was my second visit to Buckingham Palace, this is such huge recognition that I feel I now have a new responsibility on my shoulders – a responsibility to use this title to make an even greater impact on the further education sector.
“I have never set out to achieve titles and, as deeply humbling as this is, I will continue with exactly the same ambition and passion as I’ve always had.
“I will strive every day to prove that I am worthy of this honour.”
Nevil Croston, the college’s chairman of governors, said: “Dame Asha is recognised nationally and internationally as one of the most prominent figures in further education today. Under her leadership, West Nottinghamshire College has built a national reputation for the work it does with employers and placing young people into jobs, particularly through apprenticeships.
“It is a privilege to work with someone so committed to education and so passionate about the way it transforms lives. On behalf of the board of governors it is an honour to congratulate Asha on her investiture as Dame Asha Khemka.”
Dame Khemka concluded: “Growing up in India, I would never have dared to dream I would embark on such an amazing journey and achieve so much success.
“None of this would have been possible without the love and support of my husband and children, or the wonderful colleagues that have shared my vision and aspirations over the years.”