Perspectives – Against All Odds

I was reminded of an article I wrote 4 years ago about my experience firsthand about cheating on exams in schools in India when I read an AP article in New York Times.  Truly a sad story when you consider the fact that the image of Indians in the western world is that of smart, educated, honest and hardworking people.  I decided to reproduce the article from 4 years ago to highlight the factors that lead to this kind of situations.

I am a product of Indian and US education system and have done fairly well in my professional life in the US. I must admit that most of my friends who are from India came to the US for graduate school education and have done well themselves. I am very impressed with my lot, who came at a time when India was still a third world country with little hope for improvement and the education we received in India would not be expected to help us compete at a global level and do as well as we have.

Even today, India is a country with little to no infrastructure – bad roads, transportation system is either outdated or  beyond the reach of most people, power shortage is chronic and frequent, internet connectivity is spotty, political, social, educational system is corrupt to the core.  This extends into the education infrastructure that is outdated, narrow and lacks innovation.

I was particularly frustrated with the education system since the system did not allow for inquisition and promoted learning by rote. The curriculum was not updated on a regular basis to keep up with the growing body of knowledge and understanding that was taking place all around the world. I was always a good student, came first in my class and thus was frustrated with the education system and with teachers who did not have the ability or resources to promoted learning. I studied entirely on my own and this was helped by the encouragement I received from my family.

Upon arrival in the US, I was surprised by the resources available in graduate school and the quality of teachers. I also learnt that education need not be boring but can be fun. In India professors I encountered were elitist and treated students with sheer contempt. In graduate school I was surprised by the humility and willingness to admit that the teacher did not know everything. The focus in the US is on education and not necessarily on whether a student is sitting with his feet facing the teacher. I was blown away by the library resources and the infrastructure available to help and support students, if you are willing to take advantage of.

Graft and corruption in India is a fact of public life, something people have come to accept as normal. There is a huge shortage of educational resources and an insatiable demand for degrees. Education at all levels is a commodity that can be bought or sold like anything else. Students are often sold their degrees, examination results are manipulated and students who never attended the college are being awarded the degrees. I know this firsthand because in the final year of my BS examination, the proctor distributed the answer sheets I was working on to some of my friends who wanted to copy of me. I was nervous because I had no idea if I would get it back. I was livid but without recourse. Examinations have always been a formality as long as I can remember.

The quality of manpower, particularly faculty and supporting staff is declining. There are not mechanisms, processes and ability to attract and retain quality manpower. An aspiring professor can buy a job, then collect a salary but not bother showing up for class. The higher education system in teaching institutes lacks a process that promises incentives to perform; there is no reward for the meritorious and no way to ease out the non-performers.

A friend of mine came to my graduate school as a postdoctoral fellow. He was older and a faculty in a university in north India. He was a professional post doctoral fellow moving from country to country and doing research with different research groups. He was on leave of absence from his job for 5 years prior to coming to the US working with different research groups around the globe. Effectively, he was away from his job for years in a row and his job in India was safe. This is just one example of how there is no process to weed out the non-performers.

Colleges in India are a 365-day-a-year cash cow because they have multiple ways of creating a quota system called “reservation” along caste lines, ancestral affiliations, management quota, and quota for the children of benefactors and athletes. Not all of these quotas are filled up. The remaining are up for auction to the highest bidder.  Most of the money goes to the fill the coffers of the management and politicians, sometimes all of it does. Moreover, students who are the highest bidders are offered admission even if they do not meet the admission criteria. They can then pay more money and buy college degrees.

The problems and challenges I have mentioned above apply to school education too. Moreover, the education system places too much focus on science, math with little room for more comprehensive training. In my days at school for 5 -6 years in a row, I was taught history of India with very brief introduction about histories of other countries. When I arrived in the US and met people at social gatherings, I was surprised when I heard names of personalities from history that I did not know anything about. Since then, I have educated myself about world history and continue to learn as much as I can. I must admit I am glad to be in the US and having attended an US university.

For all the challenges we had to face back in India, most of us have done well. Compared to the population in India, this number is miniscule…most of the Indians who are here are the best and majority of this population are at the higher end of the caste and/or socio-economic pyramid and mostly from urban areas. They do not represent the average Joe from India, but the fortunate that have had access to resources to get a decent college degree. So next time you meet a person from India, think about the odds he or she had to overcome and survive to come to the US.

About Kammitment:  Led by scientist and life-coach Kamalesh (Kam) Rao, Kammitment helps one realize and make a commitment towards self-actualization, through tailored leadership coaching workshops and programs for students and professionals in all stages of their lives, by drawing upon the time-tested principles of Yoga and Mindfulness.  Kam has spent 20 years as a scientist and a manufacturing professional in the pharmaceuticals industry, and continues to consult with the industry.  In his free time he leads executive coaching programs for Fortune 100 clients.  A certified Yoga instructor, Kam lives in Oakland, CA and is an active volunteer in the Bay Area community when he is not perfecting the next Pretzel pose in Yoga and tapping into its myriad benefits.  For further information, please email [email protected]

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