I’ve begun working on different applications over these past couple of weeks, and I finally finished my first one. It is to be a teaching fellow helping the development of underprivileged schools back home.
As part of the application, I had to answer several essay questions so that the parent organisation can gauge how serious I am about doing this. Since I haven’t written anything on here recently, I decided to post those questions and answers here. Perhaps it will give you some insight into why I’m attempting the sorts of things that I am. (And regular readers will notice that I have appropriated several sentences straight from the journal to populate the answers.)
Why do you want to be a Teach for India Fellow? Why is now the right time in your life to do so?
One of my very first memories is from kindergarten. To this day, I vividly remember the pattern on the gate I was railing against with my tiny palms as I wailed for my mother to come back and get me. I also distinctly remember how calm I felt just moments thereafter, when a protective hand took hold of mine, and I turned to see the warm smile of my very first class-teacher.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of being taught and mentored by several wonderful teachers. I can’t always remember their names, or the exact words they used to convey concepts, but I can’t ever forget the ideas they have impressed upon me, or disregard the profoundly positive influence they have had on my life.
Education has given me the opportunity to satiate my voracious curiosity. It repeatedly allows me to experience the feeling of glee that accompanies one’s understanding of something new. It has allowed me to travel the world and meet varied and interesting people. It has brought me economic opportunity and a sense of financial security.
I imagine a day when every little child has the opportunity to pursue the things they are curious about. I believe that a good education and the freedom it provides is not a luxury, and thus reserved for a privileged few, but is something that we as a society owe all our children. It is in this context that I am keen on working with an organisation such as Teach for India. I greatly enjoy teaching, and I want to play my part in providing effective educational opportunities to children. I hope to inspire them to be curious and work hard, so that they may accomplish anything they set their minds to.
I will be completing my stint as a post-doctoral fellow in the middle of 2010, and I am at a crossroads. I could continue with my career as an academic scribbling abstract thoughts on bits of paper, or I could acknowledge that I have an intense urge to do something more substantive with my life. It was in my search to find avenues to satisfy this urge that I stumbled upon the wonderful efforts of your organisation. And I just had to try to be a part of it.
Tell us about a time in the past three years when you were working for a while towards a professional, academic or extra-curricular goal and an obstacle came in your way. Please do not use personal examples where the obstacles were sickness or family pressure.
Please describe the goal and the obstacle that came in your way?
I entered graduate school in the U.S. with what seemed to be a fairly straightforward goal: Complete the requirements for a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, the field I had been trained in as an undergrad. My curiosity soon led me to a multi-disciplinary group whose work I found fascinating, and before long, I had commenced working on my Ph.D. project with them. My primary task was to help understand the mechanical behaviour of tissues in the body as they grew.
Working toward this goal has been the most arduous intellectual task I have undertaken, and the journey has spanned much of my adult life.
All of the significant obstacles that periodically arose over the course of my study were intellectual. These roadblocks often stemmed from one fundamental fact: I was working on an interdisciplinary problem that required knowledge from a variety of fields including mechanics, mathematics, biology and engineering. And I was only comfortable with some subsets of a few of those fields.
How did you feel when faced with the obstacle?
My natural instinct when faced with something I do not understand is curious fascination. I have enough of an ego to believe that I could understand it if I set my mind to it.
But things were rarely this straightforward.
These intellectual roadblocks were not related to a single incident at a specific time, but rather appeared periodically over the duration of my study. Oftentimes, these challenges were coupled with other hurdles such as the looming academic deadline to submit a dissertation that was both substantial and original.
In such times, my response was multi-faceted. I felt the rush of the challenge, nervousness at the thought of failure, and toward the end of the programme, I began to feel isolated as I attempted to shut out all external distractions in order to concentrate harder.
What did you do when faced with the obstacle?
In the briefest of terms, I turned to many of the avenues for support that the university had to offer–my advisors, books in the library, additional courses–and I worked a lot harder.
I had the luxury of working with a diverse and supportive group. Early on, I made the effort to learn the language of these experts. I would interact with them regularly, and turn to them for assistance and advice on how to proceed. Their support was (and still is) remarkably beneficial to me.
It was also clear to me early on that if I was to make any progress at all, I had to seriously work toward an advanced degree in mathematics, to fill up some of the bigger gaps in my knowledge. And so I did. Upon completion of my M.S.E in mechanical engineering, I started working on an M.S. in the mathematics department. Later, I also transitioned my Ph.D. degree to come from two departments, necessitating that I satisfy the requirements of both these fields.
This persuaded me to take more courses, and spend a lot more time in libraries learning about areas outside my core competence.
What was the end-result?
With the help of my peers and after over five years of study, I managed to overcome a number of significant intellectual hurdles and complete the requirements for my Ph.D. Furthermore, my efforts in understanding fields initially outside my core competence allowed me to build my expertise in multiple areas. Over the years, it has also given me the opportunity to meet several interesting academics from a variety of backgrounds. The effort has been personally rewarding, and I believe I have contributed in my small way to our collective understanding of a complex problem.
Please tell us anything else you’d like us to know about you.
Much of what I want to say has been covered in the preceding essays, but the following are a couple of concerns I feel I should highlight.
The first of these is that my knowledge of Hindi is spotty at best, and I do not know any Marathi. From my research, I understand that the Teach for India programme targets English medium schools, but I imagine that my lack of knowledge of the local language will be an additional challenge when working and living in Maharashtra. I must hasten to add that I am willing to learn, and that I’m fantasising a scenario where I can later expand your efforts closer to my hometown (Madras). I firmly believe that the skills and experiences I gather as a fellow will adequately prepare me for the challenges that lie ahead.
Secondly, I am not in India at the moment. I am spending a few months as a guest researcher at the University of Cambridge in England. I intend on being here until the end of February, after which I will return to home in Norway. I am not sure how this will impact my ability to get to your nearest Assessment Centre. I must also point out that in any event, I would really like to visit your organisation and the schools you work with in person to get a clear idea of the reality of the situation, before I can confidently make such a dramatic change in the direction of my life.