Azim Premji University

Two Years at the Azim Premji University

The two years that I spent at the Azim Premji University were challenging and satisfying – and are fondly remembered. I was asked to speak to the batch of 2013 on their first day; and continue to receive queries about the university from prospective and new students. Below is the transcript of the talk that I had shared with the 2013 batch. It gives a summary of my experience there; and I am sharing it here with the hope that it may still be found useful by those considering to join APU.

Moment by moment, drop by drop 

It’s a pleasure to welcome you all, on behalf of all senior students – my batch as well as your immediate seniors – to your new life as a student at the Azim Premji University.

About two years back, we were almost exactly in the same situation that you guys are in right now. In some senses, our situation was in fact more dire. And the reason for that is – we had no seniors you know…there was nobody you could talk to, there were no records, there were no accounts, there were no experiences you could go by. But what all of us did have in common – we realized later on – was what now seems to be rather audacious hope – that we are perhaps at the right place, among like-minded people, who will help us change our hopes into reality. The reason I mention this to you now is because I think I have a sense of how some of you guys may be feeling at this moment.

Allow me to take a few guesses. Some of you have given up fairly well settled lives and are perhaps still wondering – even today – whether you have taken the right decision to be here and invest two years of your life; and whether you will learn something really substantial that will help you make a career switch later on. Some – in fact many of you, if I were to go by the emails and Facebook messages and so on, that I and others have been receiving – are really concerned whether you will find a good job at the end of these programs. Some of you are going to live in a large city – a large southern city such as Bangalore – for the first time in your life, and that too is an area of concern – which you may not be expressing, but I know there is [this concern] because it was a concern for many people in my batch as well.

Similarly, there are some who have had most of their education in local languages and haven’t really studied in institutions where English was the primary medium of instruction; and that might be a concern too. There are others, who have had their education entirely in English, and you may be looking around…subtly, trying to see if you will be able to fit in, in this crowd…so on and so forth.

And the reason I say this confidently, again, is because these were similar experiences that my batch mates had; and I know, therefore, that it wouldn’t be very different for you all. Thus, while recognizing that there isn’t ‘a’ students’ life at Azim Premji University and that each batch must recreate it again and again; in the time that I have left, I will try and give you a brief snap-shot of how it was like to be a student in the first batch at this university. And in doing so I will also hopefully address some of the questions and concerns that you may have, for now. You have a very lovely and friendly set of seniors that you will have the opportunity to talk to in much more detail later on, in the coming days and weeks – but I will try and give you a brief snap-shot in the next five-seven minutes or so. And I will briefly touch upon maybe four or five things that have stood out for me in these two years.

First, you would have heard I am sure, people talk about the benefits of diversity. I had too. I have grown up in twelve different states across the country and I thought I knew a thing or two about diversity even before I joined this institution. But, guess what?  It was after I joined APU that I and most of my batch mates, began to truly appreciate both the strengths as well as the challenges of being in a diverse group. It’s not going to be easy for you either. The batches – and I think these statistics will broadly hold true even for your batch – we were broadly split 50-50 between men and women. Close to 40% had prior work experience, 60% were freshers. The oldest person in our batch was in his 50s and the youngest was 21. Close to 50% came from tier 2 or 3 towns or rural areas and about one quarter were from non-English speaking backgrounds.

The results, in the first few weeks, as you could imagine – were quite interesting. Discussions had a tendency to go explosive quite fast.

But then we started discovering each other. We realized that that shy person who hardly ever spoke in the class had worked for years with tribal communities in maybe Madhya Pradesh or Chattisgarh. That we had actors, and poets, and painters, and dancers, and orators among us. And that there was so much to learn just by sitting and listening to people, and talking to them.

So, one of the things that I would really urge you to do over the next two years is to try and push yourselves outside your comfort zones. Try not to confine yourself to the know and the familiar – which is going to be the easy option out – people who speak the same language, people who are from the same town, people who have graduated from the same institution – you will tend to go towards them. Try to resist that. Try something new, untested and unknown – be it in the courses that you opt for or the people you choose to become friends with.

Reach out to people who may seem very different from you – and there will be plenty such people at APU – that, I can assure you about. Talk, but also listen; understand; give silence a chance – and I hope you will have even more enriching experiences than we had – because your size is four times our batch size.  I can tell you that, you know, other than the excellent education that you are going to receive at this institution, the students’ life – the experiences that you will have as a student outside the classroom, is something that you will cherish perhaps the most after the program is over. And the more willing you are to open yourselves to the new experiences and people, perhaps the more enriching your two years [are] going to be, at this institution.

Second, the courses are going to be academically rigorous. There are just no two ways about it. You must earn your grades. And cutting corners will not be an option. Irrespective of whether you have been toppers in your previous institutions, as one of my colleagues last year said, you will be stretched as a rubber band. And just as you think you are about to snap…they will let you go. Just so that you can work on the next assignments.

Having said that, do not let academic requirements over-stress you. Keep in mind that almost everyone around you wants you to really succeed and are willing to help. The university has support systems in place which you will be told about in the next few days. Make use of them. Talk to your friends and your mentors. The first few months, let me predict, are going to be academically stressful for almost every single one of you. The last thing that you should do is to clamp up, to go into a shell. Reach out, talk to people – the more you share the challenges that you are facing academically and otherwise, the better the chances of them being addressed and being resolved. So, take care of yourselves; but also look out for your would-be friends and classmates. A word of encouragement here, a small support there, can work wonders in the first few weeks when you are still trying to find your feet at this institution.

Third, how much you are able to take out of the programs and your student life will also depend to a large extent on you. This is not going to be a place where everything would be spoon-fed, so to say. There is a curriculum of course, and there are course-plans and so on that will be shared with you; but you will also often not just be allowed, but expected, to fine tune what you wish to learn. This could vary from deciding the topics of your term paper, to choosing your electives, to even suggesting new electives to the university. They will listen. As you settle down, it would help to define your interest and take responsibility, therefore, for your own learning.

And this is equally true for co-curricular activities. There are already a number of platforms and avenues for people with similar interests to come together and share, and so on. You are quite welcome to create new ones. But that onus will always stay with you – it’s up to you what you want to take away from the courses and your two years here.

Those of you who are interested in research, it’s already been mentioned, the university has a focus – a strong focus, on research, especially in the areas of education and development; and you will have plenty of opportunities – be it seminars, international ones or national; or being a part of the research teams that the faculty or the knowledge resource center team members are leading and so on.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, a lot of learning – in fact some of us would perhaps argue that most of the learning that will really stay with you – is going to happen outside of the classrooms. On your field trips, practicum visits, summer and winter internships, volunteering opportunities, discussions with professors and seniors and other experts that keep coming to the university. These will be in informal spaces – canteens, lobbies, hostels and so on. You will be hard-pressed for time; there will always be pending assignments. But I would strongly urge that you do not neglect these other aspects of learning during your stay here. Discussions and debates, in my experience, have been central to learning and keeping it confined to the classrooms wouldn’t be a very good idea.

And even as the university influences and shapes you; you too will shape the university and its culture. Not everything can be mandated, as you will understand. One of the things that we soon realized after we joined this university was, being the first batch almost everything we did could potentially be precedence setting. This was quite exciting, but at the same time it was also daunting. Many of the things we started – these could be small little things like practices such as the involvement of everyone, including the housekeeping staff in the university celebrations, to the students’ clubs and so on – continue to live on. And I think some of these will perhaps live on for much longer. But the point I am trying to make here is that it is still a relatively young institution. And yours is the biggest batch by a wide margin. So it also puts that additional responsibility on you. For what you do and how you contribute to shaping the student environment and culture – whether that’s personifying APU’s vision and helping create an inclusive and positive environment that celebrates equality and diversity, whether that’s believing and upholding freedom of speech and thought – these will continue to have an impact even after you have passed out. And that is something I am sure you will be sensitive towards.

Now, before I end, let me briefly address an issue – the issue of placements – that I believe has been a cause of concern to many of you…going by, again, the messages and so on that I have been receiving. But I will do so in just five-six words, which are these: Please do not worry about it. And the reason I say so, is the following. Ours was the first batch. Of 85 people, 77 had opted for placements and the rest had personal plans. 94 offers were made. 95% people have been placed in jobs which are more or less in their areas of interest. And though the effort was students driven, we had wonderful support from the university. And by the time you guys complete your programs, not only will APU be even better connected, but you will also have around 200 of your own seniors working in perhaps 100 different organizations across the country. And we will be more than happy to do our bit to help you find a job of your liking. But most importantly, perhaps, your ideas of what a good job is might see a drastic change in these two years. So keep your options open but do not worry too much about it [right now].

And that brings me to the end of my talk. Now, this may sound a little exaggerated perhaps, but the next two years are going to be life changing for most of you here; as it has been for the people in my batch. Not in a grand, dramatic way. You may not even realize it as it’s happening to you – as you go through the daily grinds of classrooms and readings and assignments and so on. But there will be those ‘Aha moments’. Perhaps it will come when you are talking to a farmer maybe in Andhra Pradesh. Perhaps it will come when you are trying to help people who have been evicted from their homes in Bangalore, and are left to live on the streets; or in the middle of a heated discussion with friends or instructors within the classrooms at APU. Or maybe, it will come in a quiet moment as you sit at dusk in the interiors of Kerala, contemplating the discussions on the nuclear plant; or perhaps, listening to someone who has dedicated their entire life to teaching maybe 15-20 children in some remote hamlet somewhere.

But these will accumulate – moment by moment, drop by drop – till they have carved out inside you a new way of feeling, of thinking, of being. And you will perhaps also see how broad-scale societal changes and being change agents, too, are not about trumpets and fan-fare; but slow, assiduous, efforts – drop by drop, moment by moment, individual by individual.

Most of you have left your homes, friends, families to come and study here. Know that you are among people who genuinely appreciate that, who care, who wish the best for you and who will do all that they can to help you succeed. You begin your journey here with about 500 strangers, many of who will turn out to be life-long friends.

I wish you, on behalf of all your seniors, a wonderful journey of unlearning and learning at APU. Of discovery, about your own self, and the societies that you live in; of finding your own path and friends who will accompany you on them.

Thank you.

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