Branch out, Expand Your Boundaries

Published: 12th January 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th January 2015 12:34 AM   |  A+A-

Philip Altbach, professor at the Center for International Higher Education in Boston College assessed the future of higher education in India in his report, One-third of the globe: The future of higher education in China and India. He says, “As a producer of knowledge, India’s higher education system is in a state of extensive decay. And this decay is likely to be perpetuated further in the future, in no small part due to the preference for small, highly specialised institutes, over centralization and the disproportionate importance of examinations.”

And with programmes like the FYUP (Four-year Undergraduate Programme) at Delhi University being done away with before it can actually be put to test adds to the state of decay. The NASSCOM report on employability states that only 10 per cent of our engineering graduates are employable and the quality of education and curriculum are not updated. The third edition of the National Employability Report 2014 states that only 18.09 per cent graduates get jobs. Self-driven graduates with life skills and a well-rounded education are preferred by the employers. In what sells as higher education in our country today, a holistic approach has been ignored in lieu of a specialised approach, which equips students with theoretical knowledge, but not real life or leadership skills.

As a breath of fresh air in this mayhem, Ashoka University, New Delhi, established the one-year residential Young India Fellowship (YIF) in June 2011 with 57 fellows for two cohorts of 197 recent graduates to introduce students from all backgrounds to a variety of topics — liberal arts, critical thinking, problem solving, economics, literature, visual communication, anthropology, ethics, life sciences, art appreciation, entrepreneurship, etc. The Fellowship also enables student exchanges, internships, exchange of ideas and sporting activities that make it seem like an ideal finishing school for the graduates who come with the willingness to learn from corporate leaders, social activists, researchers and entrepreneurs, and expand their horizons.

Vineet Gupta, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Founder and Trustee, Ashoka University, explains, “YIF is committed to producing change agents and leaders who will transform India. This kind of an education would require students to have an understanding across disciplines and has to be rooted in self-awareness, leadership and experiential learning. YIF chose to teach a range of subjects across disciplines such as Modern Indian History, Sociology, Development Economics, Group Dynamics and Leadership taught by some of the best faculty from across the world. Additionally students are mentored by eminent leaders and visionaries and take on an experiential learning project. YIF students have had a deep impact on their chosen fields. Fellows have gone on to become Fulbright scholars, social change agents, entrepreneurs and industry leaders.”

The Fellows indulge in trekking, running, boxing, club activities, Entrepreneurship-Cell activities and have to plan for a research project and internship which are an integral part of the fellowship. They also gain experience working in the real world through a year-long team-based consulting and research project created especially for the YIF. Whether for a major company or a start-up, for a university lab or an NGO, the Experiential Learning Module (ELM) will help you learn from doing.

The Young India Fellowship programme was launched in 2011 by the International Federation for Research and Education (IFRE) in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Through the first two editions of YIF, several leading Penn faculty have taught at YIF, and the YIF graduation certificates are co-signed by YIF and Penn Engineering Deans. The fellowship also includes an exchange programme with Ashoka University’s academic partners like Penn Engineering, Carleton College, University of Michigan in US, Kings College-London, and Sciences Po-Paris. 

Faced with myriad career options, gaps in world understanding and one-sided perspectives, youngsters stand to gain from the holistic exposure at YIF. Four fellows of the year 2014-15 share their interests and experiences with edex.

Peeyush Khare

BRANCH-OUT,-EXPAND.jpgWith a BTech from VIT-Vellore and MSc in Civil Engineering from Virginia Tech, US, Peeyush Khare harbours an ambition to pioneer the development of indigenous cutting-edge technologies in India. During his stay as an undergraduate student at VIT, Peeyush as part of a two-member team that designed a novel and economical rain simulator for Indian farmers to counter failed monsoons — a feat that was acknowledged by publication in the European Geophysical Union, General Assembly 2011, Vienna, Austria, and received funding from Villgro Possible to fabricate their design. The duo has applied for a Government of India patent for the design.

During his graduate studies, Peeyush gave a presentation at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Expo 2013 held in Washington DC on reducing the carbon footprint of off-road construction equipment. His research focused on pathogenic bio-aerosol dispersion, wherein he developed mathematical models for virus re-suspension from floor dust during human movement in a room. He spent a part of summer 2013 conducting fully-funded research at the National Center for Atmospheric Sciences, University of Leeds, UK, and Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu. It was followed by a talk on Fluid Dynamics of Bio-aerosol Dispersion at Virginia Tech’s Fluid Mechanics Symposium 2013. Peeyush’s research went on to win full scholarship from the American Meteorological Society in January 2014, enabling him to attend their 94th Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, which discussed state-of-the-art scientific approaches to environmental modelling.

“I have spent the past five years doing scientific research in India, the US and British universities at UG and PG levels and have met and worked with some top-notch professors in the world. One feature that invariably stands out in all of them is their ability to study the world from multiple perspectives — artistic, economic, social and technological. I realised that being able to analyse the surroundings from different angles allowed them to raise profound questions and give a socio-economic tinge to even the most maths, physics and chemistry intensive problems. This makes their research have profound implications on society and environment. That is when it dawned on me that I needed grooming to become a well-rounded individual, before I could take up my PhD,” he says.

With such extraordinary faculty and courses, Peeyush pursues Social Reasoning and Art Appreciation in the morning and technical papers in the evening. “Discipline-wise, the fellows are far apart, but that’s what enriches the experience. I was unfamiliar with subjects like art appreciation. Now I look forward to learning International Relations, which I think will give us a good platform.”

Arushi Massey

bNCH.jpgWhile studying History at St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, Arushi Massey developed a passion for academic research on socio-legal themes which grew out of tutorial discussions with her professors. She hopes she can further study legal systems as historical sources and how legal institutions can be used to push through change in the social sector. Her three years as an undergraduate have seen her undertake many research assignments with a couple earning notable recognitions. Her work on the Delhi University Innovation Project, ‘Improving the living conditions of the homeless in Delhi’s night shelters’ as student coordinator earned her special recognition and quite a few news headlines when the prototype ‘Rickshaw shelters’ developed by the team were launched by the then Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and patented on behalf of the students by the University.

Her independent research on low-cost private schools was motivated by her work as a Teach India volunteer and as a researcher at leading public policy think tank CCS. From a research paper it has now developed into a pilot school with about 30 young learners in Kashmere Gate (northern gate to the historic walled city of Delhi) where innovative teaching methods and flexible curriculum development were used to demonstrate that quality matters more than quantity when it comes to education. Her research was awarded the Avinder Brar Memorial Research Initiative Award and the grant funded the Pilot School for a year.

Her other forays into research have been associated with think tanks like CII, The Centre for Policy Research and Ministry of Information Technology and Communication as research intern to the Minister of State, Milind Deora. In the four months spent as the youngest intern to Milind Deora, Arushi questioned and researched the dichotomy of IT laws — Freedom of Speech versus IT laws and good politics versus protecting individual rights. She also spent four months working with a scholar of political theory, Vinay Sitapati, in tracing the social impact of Supreme Court judgements in the Narmada case and Gujarat riots through newspapers and archived material. Though her applications are shot down initially for her age, this busy bee refuses to take no for an answer and wins them over with persistence and intelligence. YIF is her ticket to learning and understanding the world around her better and obsessively chase after ideas about inequality, justice, morality and thought. She believes the interdisciplinary nature of the fellowship will be a great asset for her and has landed her a full tuition scholarship.

“Curiosity has been a huge factor in my learning. The questions in my mind about morality and inequality do not have one-dimensional answers. The course structure deals with sociological reasoning and problem solving approaches in a diverse crowd. The faculty doesn’t just point out the problems, but explore solutions to the same. I want to become a legal academician with a focus on legal philosophy and its impact on contemporary human rights debates, and at the same time fight for quality education, an endeavour I have been pursuing through policy research for the past three years,” she says.

Prineeta Kulkarni

Excited by the potential of scientific innovation to tackle medical challenges, she pursued an Integrated Master’s in Biotechnology and also attended the Seventh Science Conclave organised by IIT-Allahabad which brought together Nobel Laureates, scientists, students, teachers and researchers on one platform. The interaction with intelligentsia brought a world of exposure to Prineeta Kulkarni. She also undertook cutting-edge research on epigenetics (study of cellular and physiological traits) and cancer at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Her desire to contribute to social transformation helped her  implement HIV/AIDS awareness programmes in two West African schools and conduct impact assessment in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Odisha as an intern with the Lighting a Billion Lives initiative at The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi. She also dabbled in healthcare advertising and drove business development for a startup consulting firm.

Prineeta took the middle ground between wanting to pursue her passion for Life Sciences and curiosity to explore broader themes with consulting and took up a stint in healthcare and FMCG which took her to East Africa where she worked on business challenges in healthcare. This also helped her work on a complex negotiation case in India’s pricing policy for pharmaceutical drugs. “The affordability of pharmaceutical drugs is of primary concern as almost 70 per cent of the population spends out of its own pocket for healthcare,” says Prineeta. She applied to YIF with the hope of developing a well-rounded and holistic point of view, which is more attuned to ground reality.

“The fellowship breaks away from the shortcomings of the conventional education system in India and offers a chance to imbibe lessons and opinions from leading practitioners in these areas. My objective in this one year programme is to discover the best alignment of my interests, natural abilities and developed skill sets in order to gain a more informed idea of where I can fit in and contribute best to society,” says Kulkarni, who says the experience has been “amazing” so far. The six-week terms with 20 hours of teaching in each subject give a thorough grounding in a fast-paced manner. The faculty engages the fellows in engrossing lectures that arouse curiosity and pave the way for discussions. “In Reason and Making of Modern India by Prof Udhanshu Mukherjee, no facts are thrown at you. Instead, he allows us to understand the motivations and ideology behind the subject, which is very refreshing,” says Prineeta who wants to get into Impact Investing and complete an MBA.

Suvina Singal

Suvina-Singal.jpgYoung minds are always curious and when one graduate felt that the levels of specialisation in Indian educational institutions restricted her discovery of the world and herself, she applied to the YIF with the hope of gaining more exposure. Having completed Bachelors in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, New Delhi, this Fellow has varied interests. In the past five years, Suvina Singal has worked with NGOs associated with of HIV/AIDS awareness in New Delhi, sustainable development in Uttarakhand, and youth unemployment and gender issues in Himachal Pradesh. “I got to know about YIF through friends when it became popular in the student circle. Towards the end of the first year of college, I grew more conscious of the gaps in my understanding of the world I wanted to be a part of. So I started out on a mission to find a way of making things right. I came across the Young India Fellowship, and I knew that I had to apply for it,” says Suvina.

She particularly enjoys subjects like art, academic writing, history, sociology and introduction to leadership, subjects that haven’t been touched since school. “We have such great and approachable faculty here. We get to propose our own clubs, conduct film screenings, and so on. At a time when you have so many careers to choose from, you don’t know what you really want unless you’re exposed to them. The Fellowship provides a nurturing and encouraging environment with so much to learn! I never knew how exhausting it could be to be inspired at all times!”

Her experience with developmental projects at the grassroots level, along with studying development and political economy as a part of her coursework has led to her interest in studying the factors underlying social inequalities and how social reality is constructed. Owing to her undergraduate studies in Economics, she is also keen on analysing the social repercussions of economic development and globalisation. Born to doctors, Suvina relates to some of the topics debated at Ashoka like the generic drug debate, pharmaceutical needs of the masses and monopolisation of the industry. Documentaries screened like Fire in the Blood have found favour with students like her in the fight against pharmaceutical companies that block access to low-cost AIDS drugs.

“We (the fellows) live, study and eat together. The exposure to different fields happens very naturally, as a result. The fellowship is great for students because you get to focus on your subject as you get an interdisciplinary perspective, which will greatly broaden your horizon,” says Suvina who plans to pursue her Master’s or work at a grassroots development organisation after the Fellowship.She also opts for guest lectures and documentary screenings about the pharmaceutical industry when time permits.


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