Correct mentoring can give students an edge

Mentoring is the need of the times and shall serve our talent well for our own well-being in the decades ahead if we incorporate such practices into our formal systems.
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.

The more I think about the direction that universities in India need to take if they wish to remain relevant and competitive at the global level, the more I am convinced that most universities have not yet grasped the needs of the coming years. This is amply borne out by the disappointing manner in which so many claim to have implemented the National Education Policy 2020. I speak of the lack of attention to one of the major thrusts of the policy on the interplay between disciplines in meaningful ways.

Let me illustrate this above assertion through some interesting real-life examples. Given that this is that time of the year when NRIs visit India, I too have been visited in the last few days by several of my former students. Happily, each one is well placed in the US and in Europe. There is an interesting feature that was common to them while studying in Indian institutions. All of them were deemed to have mediocre and lacklustre academic performances.

They would not have made it anywhere career-wise with their academic profiles. The other feature common to them was that they were all keen to do something challenging. In other words, they had not found anything in their respective curricula that would have motivated or excited them. In those days—almost 20 years ago—I was running a mentoring project for exactly such students. This project was not and could not have been accepted inside any regular institution in India and so I was running it outside of the ambit of any recognised university.

Together with some bright and young colleagues, we ran a programme that stimulated and exposed these students to mathematics through an out-of-the-box and practical pedagogy that relied on problem-solving through projects. Their learning was essentially centred around mathematics with high doses of coding, exposure to data analysis and a sprinkling of applications in finance, biology, physics or even engineering. The students rose to the challenge and performed remarkably well. We then encouraged them to apply to graduate programmes leading to a PhD degree in the US. What really worked for them was the fact that my colleagues and I wrote justifiably strong letters of recommendation. Each of these students was admitted with full financial funding and they acquitted themselves with outstanding doctoral research.

What I want to emphasise is that these students had no trouble getting jobs. For instance, one of them is a leading researcher in California with Apple Inc. working on an engineering theme dealing with image analysis. Another works at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre at Houston dealing with cutting-edge cancer research. A third is a pure researcher at a leading facility in Spain dealing with advances in MRI imaging. A fourth has his own startup in the US. A fifth is a researcher in an advanced area of pure mathematics at a leading Indian institute. The point is that all of them gave me the same strong background in pure mathematics with appropriate exposure to applications but with innovative pedagogies.

They were first mentored by my colleagues and me in India. No Indian university was willing to look at them. And it seems that after all these years, such students are being let down by the hundreds each year in our universities. This is the need of the times and shall serve our talent well for our own well-being in the decades ahead if we incorporate such practices into our formal systems. Else we shall keep producing demoralised unemployable youth.

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

Posts on X (formerly known as Twitter): @DineshSinghEDU

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