Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I set off to join the Young India Fellowship (YIF) in Delhi last year, filled with a sense of wonder and with a desire to learn firsthand how liberal arts education in India can be revived with a new sense of purpose. Here was a programme, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania, that was offering to fund all of my expenses for a year so that I may study 20 different liberal arts courses, learn from the best faculty from around the world, interact with 96 other students from across diverse disciplines, and work on a real-time project of my choice; it seemed almost too good to be true. As a English literature student at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi and as a post-graduate student in Journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, I had begun to sense the importance of tearing down disciplinary boundaries and seeking a broader approach to education. YIF turned out to be a year-long journey of learning to tear down those boundaries with confidence, always making connections across disciplines that the undergraduate system tends to compartmentalise.

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Tell us about the YIF program

In a year’s time, the programme aimed at introducing us to the techniques, concerns and leading debates of different disciplines through six-week modules without attempting to make “experts” of any of us. For instance, we studied “Sociological Reasoning” (and not Sociology) under the great Professor Andre Beteille and learned how the sociological lens can often help untangle what appears to be a “merely” economic issue. We then learnt how the economics lens can nuance a matter of public policy. Several terms (and many other courses) later, we picked up that thread with an anthropologist from UPenn to engage with how the discipline uses the technique of participant observation to reveal how public policy is framed in the context of a given society. With such breadth of exposure and mentorship from academicians as well as leading professionals in my areas of interest, I began to connect the dots of my literature and media background with my belief in anthropology as the most inclusive discipline to understand society and its institutions. I am now heading to the University of Oxford on the Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue a masters in social anthropology, with specific interest in researching on the media.

Can you talk about real project experiences ?

While the classroom lectures (spanning three courses each term over eight terms) gave us theoretical perspectives, the experiential learning module acted as the practical complement. The ELM was an eight-month project I worked on, in a team of three, in my field of choice. Since I had approached YIF with a passion to understand how the liberal arts can be leveraged to bridge societies, I worked with InDialogues, the Public Diplomacy wing of the External Affairs Ministry, to help launch the Young Africa Fellowship (YAF), a liberal arts and leadership programme for African youth along the lines of YIF. Working with a team comprising a UNEP Climate Champion and a Googler with a debating background helped me see the importance of multiple perspectives.

We delivered a flagship exchange programme between YIF and YAF and the framework of the Fellowship for years to come. I worked in several such mixed groups on multiple projects, marvelling at how a tech whiz, a psychologist, a film-maker and a doctor can disagree completely and yet produce a beautiful documentary at the end!

What did you like about YIF?

The defining feature of the experience was a sense of fellowship in being a part of a new, dynamic experiment in an ancient field: the liberal arts. This was marked by a sense of complete democracy, right from my conversations with the Founding Dean (who also founded the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad) and the inspiring faculty, to my interactions with every single Fellow. This has also kept the founding batch coming back constantly to the Fellowship, as we work towards building a fully-fledged liberal arts and sciences university — Ashoka University. YIF will always be a bend in the river that has been my journey — it has helped me see the ripples that are beginning to spread in the placid surface of higher education in India, and how the liberal arts can be re-imagined as an education for life.

With YIF proving to be a hugely successful prototype, the founders — leading Indian philanthropists, industrialists and educationists united in their passion to revitalise higher education in India — are setting up Ashoka University, which is ready to admit its first cohort of undergraduates in June 2014.

Ashoka’s academic approach is radically different from Indian institutions, giving students the flexibility to pursue an inter-disciplinary liberal arts programme while focusing on developing leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Ashoka, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania and Carleton College (ranked in the top five liberal arts colleges in the United States), will offer a four-year undergraduate programme; the first two years comprise broad-based foundation courses (Literature, Math, History, Economics, Philosophy, Political Science, etc) followed by the freedom to choose majors according to aptitude.

Faculty from Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale, sit alongside stalwarts such as the Chairman, Indian Council for Social Science Research, to deliver a holistic curriculum to undergraduates.

Scholarships are also being fleshed out to help deserving candidates partake of this Ivy-league education in an Indian context. The campus is based in the Rajiv Gandhi Education City, NCR.