Going into the AIF Clinton Fellowship, I knew that many of my preconceived notions would be challenged – indeed, that was one of the biggest selling points of the experience. And knowing non-profit work, I knew that I would likely be called upon to help out with projects not necessarily in my “job description,” which has always led to interesting and rewarding experiences. So getting the opportunity to help the 12th-standard students at the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam think about their future plans and apply for colleges, while not directly related to my project area around farming and sustainability, was something I was excited to help with. Being a native English speaker and college graduate, I thought I would be well-equipped to help. And I’m sure to some extent I did – but I quickly realized that the college admissions process that I breezed through so easily just years before, is a much different experience for these students.
Before going further, I would like to provide the disclaimer that this blog post is based solely on my experience with a small number of students and alumni, and is by no means meant to be a reflection of the larger admissions process in Tamil Nadu or India. This is simply a summary of the observations I made through discussions with the 12th-standard KKG students. One of the first surprises of the application process was how late they started thinking about their next steps after 12th standard. In my personal experience with college applications, I began working on course work and volunteer experiences that would help my admissions chances years before graduation. College visits were our family vacations the summer after my junior year, and applications were submitted by December of my senior year. I had narrowed my choices down and then committed to a college by March, which compared to some of my peers was fairly late.
Contrast that to my experiences at Kattaikkuttu Sangam. During their entire exam year, the students appeared not to have thought much about college applications or which subject to apply for. When they said they would wait until after exams to start applying, I was shocked. (For context, the 12th-standard students here took their final examinations the last week in March and first week in April.) Once we started doing research on the admissions process at the schools they were considering (mainly local colleges), I realized that for those schools, waiting until after examinations was not only a better option, it was the only option. Several of the schools still don’t have an application available until June! Used to a different timeline, I was pushing them to start a process that often wasn’t even possible yet.
This is not to say that all universities operate on that timeline – far from it. From researching other options with the students, we saw that schools in bigger cities (e.g. Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi) had several rounds of application processes that were already in progress, which was more in line with my previous experience of the college admissions process in the U.S. But due to the financial limitations of the students, they often felt those schools were out of reach for them. Also, since most of the students who graduate from the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam either begin performing professionally upon graduation or enroll in local colleges, it was uncharted territory for them, with no one to follow as an example.
I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the differences between local colleges and “big city” universities, because I obviously have little experience with both. My main point when bringing up the differences in timeline of admissions between the two is simply that the college application experience I had, and that I was expecting to help them navigate, was far from the reality of what they were facing in the local context. We ended up helping them apply to one university outside Delhi, which was much more similar to my experience applying for college. But the local application process was, and still is, somewhat of a mystery to me. As a planner, it confounds me how laid back the whole process is, and how little time is in between when applications are open and when school starts!
The other thing I wanted to highlight was the difficulty of filling out the application from the students’ perspective in regards to their life experiences. I was very surprised at some of the assumptions inherent in the process that made the application seem exclusionary. A basic example is when filling out an online application for one of the out-of-the-state private universities, the students were asked to fill in their parents’ educational background. For all of them, their parents had little or no education. The application required an answer, yet did not provide them with a choice that fit their circumstances (the lowest education level available to be checked was 10th standard, which was much further than many of the parents reached). Furthermore, this presented an even greater challenge for the student whose parents are both deceased – the application form required answers, yet she was raised by her grandmother who had no formal schooling. How is she supposed to truthfully fill in the application when the form does not even reflect her life experience?
I understand intellectually that this discrepancy is present in many different forms throughout the world. Indeed, I’m sure what I described is a common problem for first generation college students in the United States as well. But having watched these bright, talented students struggle to fit their lives into boxes the colleges give them makes me realize that understanding the problem intellectually, versus witnessing the toll it takes on a young person to feel their experiences are invalid, is two completely different things. I’d like to think that I helped them broaden their horizons and expand their possibilities by applying for these schools, but really they did more to open my eyes to their experiences than anything else. Perhaps I’m just really late to the game and this is common knowledge, but I’d rather be late to the game than blind to the truth they have to live.