Sunday, February 23, 2014

From a Desi in Amreeka

At the last leg of my journey of pursuing the Master's degree, my mind wandered off to a day about 3 years back when the same mind felt that it was not done with education yet. I resigned from my fairly well-paying job and had a horde of people telling me that I'm committing career suicide by resigning even before I gave the entrance exams for post graduate studies. Even my managers who just about a month before my resignation were less than encouraging during the appraisal sessions, now offered me reduced workload so as to accommodate time for my study preparations. But my mind was made up and I was ready for a one year break for answering the required exams and pursuing my dreams. That part of the dream is almost achieved and with a job offer I am more than keen to take up, I couldn't help, but compare it to a similar situation when I had completed my bachelor's degree. 

The four years spent in obtaining my undergraduate degree had been stressful to say the least, and whatever confidence and self-esteem I had when I entered college was drained out by the time I left. The system did not agree with me and I did not agree with it. The result was that a person who wanted to learn the marvels of technology and had a passion to build, was totally changed and what came out was a guy who in rest of the world's eyes had one of the best pedigree that India had to offer and could conquer the world, but in reality he was just tired of trying to fit in a system that did not allow him to be himself. Comparing that to the present day, my graduate degree has been equally, if not more draining. But there is a feeling of satisfaction inside that I have actually learned something instead of cramming up what others told me to. A new confidence has built up which tells me that if I have managed to come through this, I can handle anything. Why this difference? Living in US has been more challenging than living in Allahabad and way more expensive too. But still I feel studying here has been one of the best decisions I ever took in my life. Why did I not feel the same when I was leaving Allahabad?

I have always been curious ever since I remember, and my parents encouraged it. Though highly introverted, I wanted to explore and learn new stuff. And inherent with that was my questioning behavior. I have never been able to take things at face value and have been ridiculed by classmates for asking too many questions in class. The worst was in an Electronics lecture in my first year at MNNIT. The Prof after finishing an explanation asked if anybody in the class had any questions. Promptly, yours truly raised his hand, and it was the only one in the class of 60. He asked the whole class if anybody else had the same doubt as the one I had asked. Nobody said anything. The Prof's conclusion was that I wasn't paying attention in class since everybody else had understood the concept, that I had a wandering mind and I should control it and focus during the class. I was made to stand up so that everybody could see me and humiliated for 5 minutes. In all these 5 minutes, he did not bother answering my question. The system had shown me my place. 

There were many more incidents like these, each time with me getting convinced that maybe I was a bit stupid and incapable of grasping things fast. The exams were the biggest nightmare. Everybody expected the answers to be exact replica of what was given in the notes and anything written in a different way (though it meant the same) was given a big fat zero. The plummeting grades ate up my confidence, though the effort was always there. Slowly I began to accept that maybe I wasn't that good an engineer and that I should have tried some different career. It was even more reinforced during the final project presentation when our project report was thrown in our faces because one line on the index page was out of alignment. And this was a project that had been called for an international conference. The worst part was that I was in one of the top ranked institutes in India and this was the state. I could only imagine what people in other colleges went through. My belief has been that education is a journey in which teachers and students take part together. If we were on the same side in the beginning, at what stage did it become teachers versus students? And it wasn't just the teachers. The cut-throat competition ensured that friends turned into enemies in the illusion of a "competitive" world outside. Each student was trying to outdo the other in a totally unnecessary race. There were people who would spread rumors about certain chapters being included in the syllabus in order to scare the hell out of their classmates. So instead of studying together, it was more of studying to beat each other, and in this crazy melee I was guilty of trying it too and failed terribly.

Contrasting that with the two year experience in Arizona. I was again one of the few people asking "too many" questions, the Profs encouraged it. Even for the silliest of the doubts they would spend time explaining in different ways till the person understood it. They never hesitated in admitting if they did not know the answer to a question. Never ever did I see any student being humiliated even though they did not understand something or did not score decent marks. The assignments were tough, way more tougher than in undergrad and most of the time you had to take help from your friends to complete some tasks. Collaborative effort was encouraged but any form of plagiarism was severely dealt with. I even know some people who have been deported out of the country for plagiarizing some assignments. Grades were hardly the basis for any form of selection, including jobs and internships. The scores were confidential and nobody would know my grade if I chose not to reveal it. Slowly, as my understanding of the tech world increased, the lost confidence began returning. The only sad part here was that many of my fellow Indians still had that cut throat spirit which they forgot to leave back home.

The US education system is very effective in making you challenge yourself. The strict rules against plagiarism ensure that one tries to do the work honestly, the end result being that you have a better understanding of the material. I am very patriotic and I love my country and people. But it really makes me sad when we end up pulling ourselves down because of the system that we've grown up in. An example would be in selection of courses. Here, unlike the rigid structure in India, the selection of courses is totally up to you, and you can study whichever subject you want, decide your specialization as per your interests. Inspite of this flexibility, I have seen a crazy herd mentality among Indian students here. Everybody wants to go for the so-called easy courses where getting higher grades is easy. Most students don't even know which subjects they are interested in and enroll in courses just because everybody does that. To top it all, when new students come in and ask the seniors for advice, the same advice is passed on and the vicious chain goes on.

Some more points that I would like to make as to why the system in US is better 
  • It encourages innovative thinking rather than rote learning
  • Teacher's are more approachable.
  • There are a lot of resources and facilities for learning. The research labs are well equipped and new ideas bring in new funds to get new equipment.
  • No caste based reservations. There are a lot of scholarships though for the "minority" communities which help them pay the fees, but seriously nobody is denied an opportunity because of the caste or community that the person belongs to. 
Maybe it is unfair to generalize based on my own individual experience. After all our country has given rise to so many people who are considered successful and geniuses in their respective fields. I would like to point out that there are an even greater number of people who did not become successful because of the same system. No system is perfect, but every system can be made better. Instead of living in denial, we should be accepting the flaws and working towards improving it. And we, as students are also equally to blame. I would be blunt and say that as students we rarely cared about learning. If we did, we would have complained against teachers who did not teach, we would have tried to do our homework ourselves instead of copying from various sources. We just cared about getting a good grade, a good degree and a good job at the end of it just so that we can display it to the world as an indicator of our worth. Hardly anybody in India does engineering because he or she wants to be an engineer. The most common reasons are that an engineering degree helps to get a plum job or that their parents forced them to or that it helps the guys to get a bigger sum in dowry (sad, but true) when they get married. If the students themselves lack any passion for learning, can we really blame the teachers for not wanting to teach them?

Most of the Indians that I know here want to go back to India eventually. The main question is, does India want them to come back? Everybody wants to contribute to a positive change, but before that the system has to change to allow them to contribute.

I just realized that this blog post has turned into more of a rant than a structured argument. I have long wanted to write about these things but never came round to it. Some people may disagree with my arguments and that is totally fine since everybody has a right to their opinion. My opinion has been based on my experiences so far. Everybody's journey is different and hence the travel is different. Will be back with the fiction next time... :)