By Nikhil Kumar:
While I was home for Holi this spring, a sudden reality dawned on me. Since I am the eldest of six children in my joint family, I was supposed to help my two cousins, graduating out of high school, decide what field they would pursue in the future. And I did not know what to say to them.
It was reminiscent of the time I was making the same crucial decision for myself. I had decided to prepare for JEE and get admitted to an IIT. And so I did. In 2014, I got an AIR less than 3000 and was admitted to IIT Bombay.
And here I am, four semesters into my undergraduate programme without a clue about what goes on in the lectures. Most of the lecture hours are spent sleeping, scrolling down the Facebook newsfeed, chatting on WhatsApp etc. because the slightest attempt to understand the courses seems futile. Assignments are just copied by most students, some practicals seem even worse than lectures in that we write more than we actually do. I mug up just enough of the tutorials just before exams and quizzes to get an average grade.
After the mid-term exams in the third semester, I was sitting in a tutorial (in which we are supposed to solve questions with the help of seniors and instructors) where questions were being discussed while I sat in my place lost in my reverie. I had no clue about what was going on around me. At the end of it, I copied the solutions from my colleagues and submitted the sheet, as I have become used to by now.
That day something snapped in me. I realised that this wasn’t me, this wasn’t what I had come to IIT to become. I used to be a good friendly guy, although not a total extrovert, during my high school years but that seems like a long time ago. I have become a self-centered, always-in-the-room, never-go-out kind of guy who spends most of his time on a laptop, so much so that the power of my glasses had to be doubled at the end of my first year.
I told my parents that I wanted to drop out. I was so desperate to leave IIT that I told them I would take any private college if they just admitted me in an economics undergraduate course in the middle of the year. I even applied to a few and was accepted at one of them. But then something totally unexpected happened. I was bombarded with a string of phone calls from well-meaning relatives and total strangers with myriad reasons why my decision to leave was a disastrous mistake.
‘What will you do if not engineering’, ‘What job will you get if you leave IIT’, ‘What will you do with a B.A. degree in economics’, ‘Whar package will a degree in economics fetch you’, ‘Just get a degree from IIT and don’t worry about anything else’, ‘Prepare for other competitive exams like UPSC, CAT etc.’, ‘Who leaves IIT for a private college’ are a few of the reactions I received. Since it was the middle of the semester, I dropped the idea. But the colourful phrases that were hurled at me over the phone were wrecking.
Is this really what they thought about non-engineering, non-medical and non-business fields, I asked myself. Unsettlingly, the answer was yes. Even I had come from a place with a similar set of prejudiced norms. I lived in a hostel right from kindergarten till high school. The warden was a hard taskmaster who didn’t allow anything remotely divergent from our academic workload to find the slightest of our attention. Since I was the topper of my school, it was expected of me to easily qualify for IIT, in that I would be wasting my extravagant grades if I decided to do something else.
I had been groomed to choose engineering as if it would be blasphemous to even consider anything beyond its peripherals. So, I had developed a pre-disposed notion that anything other than ‘engineering’, ‘medical’ or ‘management’ was an inferior thing to do, that those who pursued them would be less well-off than I would be as an IITian. And now the tables had turned and I was the subjected to the same uninformed biased commentary. I realised how superlative a smug I was.
So, when my two cousins told my uncles about their inclination to go to Kota to prepare for JEE/Medical, my uncles were totally welcoming of their choices. I, of course, wasn’t. Not that I didn’t want them to become good engineers or doctors or scientists, I was just concerned that they should not end up like me. I do not underestimate their abilities to do what they are willing to and I honestly hope they turn out better than I did. I just hoped to help them clarify their minds about what they were about to get themselves into.
So, I asked them why they wanted to pursue these fields. And I got a vague reply somewhere between ‘I want to become an engineer/doctor’ to ‘my friends are also doing the same’. I wasn’t convinced but no one understood why I was asking these silly things when they were trying to aim so high. And ultimately, it becomes a question of how much of an influence I could be since I hadn’t been in touch (they too live in hostels)? As it turned out, I wasn’t much. I came to Mumbai (still at IIT) and they went to Kota. And that’s that.
When people ask me what do you want to become, I tell them with a palpable pride, “I haven’t figured out yet.” And I feel great doing that rather than giving a half-hearted false dream of a very bright future. And I have IIT to thank for this strength and understanding that I have now. There are many things that IIT has helped me discover that I wouldn’t necessarily have found otherwise.
I find myself drift a lot towards subjects like political science, economics, philosophy, literature, sociology etc. I watch political documentaries, speeches by historic politicians and economists, debates at the Oxford Union, Munk etc. I have started reading books on literally everything, from politics to romantic fiction, from economics to non-fictional accounts etc. I volunteer at an NGO where I teach kids. I write blogs about politics during my examinations (and trust me it doesn’t come out any better than that any other time). Words flow like silk. I am writing a stupid romantic novel even though I haven’t had a brush with romance in the twenty years I have lived.
But then I find it frighteningly but increasingly true that ‘I want to do engineering/medical’ has become a catch-phrase that silences any and all questions that anyone might have related to a student’s career-related decisions. To proclaim that ‘my child studies at IIT’ is a matter of social pride. No one cares what discipline you are pursuing, how good your grades are or the most important thing, do you enjoy what you do at IIT? All that matters is that you are an IITian, and there can be nothing better than that!
In my two years after joining IIT, I have realised the importance of career counselling which is seriously lacking in most schools. Most students have vague and ill-conceived notions about their career choices that are never clarified due to lack of parent-teacher interaction or a well-nuanced parent-student interaction. There is also an information vacuum about the various choices that a high school graduate has. I have found it very commonplace that students get better exposed to these choices once they get admitted to a college and have committed themselves to a particular undergraduate course.
I have found in my conversations with many parents (mine included) that they tend to think that school is a transactional service provider where they send their kids and they will automatically turn into intelligent beings. This mindset is hurting students even more than the aforementioned things. When they are not involved in this crucial decision-making process, it becomes even more difficult for the students to communicate their problems that they face thereafter. I could not figure out for a long time how to tell my parents about what I was going through.
The hefty packages and successful startups that are advertised in popular media outlets about these IITs is a dangerous myth that is sure to have huge unintended consequences for the prospective candidates who wish to apply to these colleges in the future. These lucrative headlines hardly paint a true picture of these institutes. A recent study at the freshman batch of IIT-Bombay found that almost 65% respondents felt that JEE preparation had an impact on their creativity while almost 55% felt burnt out after JEE preparation. When asked about why they chose IIT Bombay, the respondents had this response. A whopping 92% felt the pressure of their own expectations to crack JEE while almost 55% spent less than an hour or none on extra-curricular activities.
Does every student have to undergo these highly strenuous two years just to get a degree (after another four/five years) which they are not sure they will appreciate at the end of it all? I don’t have the right answer or any answer, but I am certain that it is something worth thinking about.
Author’s disclaimer: This is a personal view of what I have experienced and not a generalised decree on IITians. I have seen and met many IITians who are doing great work in their fields of interest and I know that in the pursuit of their goals, IIT is playing a crucial role.