The BackStory of Mrs. BITA: Part 2

We continue where we left off in Part 1, childhood fast becoming a memory, the specter of college looming.

Stumbling into my future

The Indian education system is big on exams. As students we are beset by tests. There are tests every month, half-yearly tests and ‘final’ exams. I experienced a surplus of schools and in all of them never was I once awarded a letter grade. We always got marks, out of a hundred. In two of the schools that I attended they even had the habit of reading the marks out to the whole school during assembly. This made for an alarmingly long assembly, standing in the scorching sun. Students fell like flies during the reading, fainting dead away, though whether from exhaustion, a determination to end the ordeal, or embarrassment at having their marks read out, it is hard to say.

Story of Mrs. BITA 2

At the end of school, there is the mother of all exams called a board exam. The school I was in at the time was part of the Central Board Of Secondary Education (CBSE). The CBSE administers the board exam nationally – students in schools all over the country sit for this exam at the same time on the same day (actually a series of days and times, one for each subject). In 2013, for example, 900,000 students sat for the exam. Why is this exam such a big fucking deal? Because it may determine which college you attend and what field of study you will be allowed to pursue.

The Story of Mrs. BITA part 2

I never had a real conversation with my parents about career choices. It was always a given that I would choose to be either a doctor or an engineer. I never talked to a school guidance counselor. This is primarily because we didn’t have those and talking to an imaginary person makes people look at you funny.

If one aspires to be a doctor or an engineer there are essentially two options:

  1. Study at a ‘national’ college.
  2. Study at a ‘state’ college.

(P.S. In India the term college is used for graduate and post-graduate studies. School is only used up until high school, and never used to refer to college. When I first moved here and people asked me where I went to school I often found it odd that they were interested in this weird fact about me and they probably thought me very odd for going on and on about attending eight different schools from kindergarten to high school).

The ‘national’ colleges are more prestigious. The IITs, for example, arguably the best engineering colleges in India, conduct their own entrance exam. Competition is fierce, and for good reason. The IITs have produced world-famous alumni. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, for example, are both IIT alumni. For many the IITs represent the one sure-fire way to escape the cycle of poverty. Competition to get into the IITs is so fierce, that the coaching industry focussed on training students to pass that examination is a 3.37 billion dollar industry and over the course of the last 5 years in Kota, Rajashthan, one of the biggest coaching hubs in the country 57 students have committed suicide. A lot of these classes are horribly expensive – they cost more than the actual college fee! I don’t think the word ‘classes’ helps paint a full picture either – students live at these coaching centers for 2 years and eat, sleep and breathe the IIT exam prep for two whole years. In 2011 close to half a million students sat for the entrance examination. They were competing for 9618 seats.   

My parents could not afford coaching classes. They were also very laid back about college admissions in general. So I went to a ‘state’ college. Admission to a state college is based on how you performed in the board exam I mentioned earlier. Imagine a sorted list of all students based on their marks. On the day of admissions they go down the list of students on this list and the student gets to pick a college and a major. The lower down you are on this list the less likely it is that you are going to get either the college or the major you desire. We did not apply to individual colleges. We didn’t write essays extolling our virtues and describing how special we are and why we are different and worthy. We were reduced to marks on a list, sorted, and slotted into college accordingly.

So, how did I end up at my college studying Computer Engineering?

The Story of Mrs. BITA part 2

 

Parents, a couple of months before the board exams: Are you leaning towards medicine or engineering
Me: I don’t know.
Parents, a couple of months after the board exams: Are you leaning towards medicine or engineering?
Me: I think medicine (Big surprise here. It was all I knew. I had never met an engineer in my life, and we did not own a computer. On the other hand I had grown up in and around hospitals, and had watched three post mortems by the time I was twelve).
Father, a few days later, putting down his morning newspaper: Admissions to medical colleges have been delayed indefinitely this year because blah-de-blah have gone on strike. I guess you’re going to be an engineer.
Me: Ok.
Father and I, standing in line on admissions day, approaching the counter where I would have to pick my college and major. There is a display overhead showing which colleges and majors still have seats available.
Father: Looks like you can study Electronics and Telecommunication at college ranked #1 or Computer Science at college ranked #2. I’ve heard that Computer Science is becoming a big deal. What do you think
Me: Sure.

And thus, without an iota of passion, and all the awareness of a gnat, did I stumble upon my chosen career. I look back on that moment now and shake my head in wonder. How much good karma must I have cashed in for that one moment of incredible luck? I bumbled my way into a field that was young, innovative and incredibly interesting. And did I mention the money? I lucked into one of the most lucrative fields around these days.

The College Experience

By this time my father had retired from the army and my college was in the city where he was now working. I lived at home and commuted to college everyday. My tuition was INR 32,000 a year. Given the currency conversion rate at the time, that works out to about $800 a year. So my degree cost a grand total of $3200. My parents paid for my education and would never hear of me paying them back.

This was my mode of transportation to college, though mine was black. It is called a Sunny. It had a 60cc engine and a maximum speed of 50 km/hr (31 mph). I could not have been cooler if I tried.

The Story of Mrs. BITA part 2

My first week in college I rode into a giant pothole (it was the rainy season and the pothole was filled with water and therefore well disguised), fell over and needed stitches on my chin. My parents refused to let me use the Sunny for two months after that. I had to commute using public transport.

My college ‘campus’ consisted of four buildings in close proximity to each other. There was the main building, the boy’s hostel (translation: dorms), the girl’s hostel and the unfinished building whose purpose was largely unknown. The buildings were grey concrete monstrosities, and were unpainted on the outside (they are painted now. I checked my college website while writing this article, and oh boy, it is fancy now). We did not have a library. They did squeeze in one basketball court between the buildings. Our college had no organized sports. The road connecting the main road to my college was unpaved and turned into a swamp when it rained. Pigs rooted around in the swamp. The trick was to somehow ride your bike through the swampy area and into the college gate without putting your feet down. One time a pig ran out in front of me and I had to break this golden rule. My foot went into the muck and mire and when I withdrew it I got back my foot but not my shoe. *Cue ominous music*. Nobody ever saw or heard from that shoe again. All told I’m grateful I got to keep my foot.

I wore jeans and a shirt on my first day in college (not a hooker-short leather skirt paired with thigh high boots. Jeans. And a button down shirt that I left untucked). I remember being excited about the fact that for the first time in my life I didn’t have to wear a uniform every day. I was taken aside by some of the senior girls (girls who had been in college for over a year) and told that there were certain professors who disapproved of modern, western dressing. My character would be judged based on the clothes I wore, and loose moral characters had been known to receive failing grades. The preferred dress for women was a salwar kameez, like so:

The Story of Mrs. BITA part 2

So that was a great start to the college experience.

Acquiring an Education (or not)

My college lecturers did not encourage discourse nor the spirited exchange of ideas or dissenting viewpoints. In fact, in my first month of college we had a professor make three students stand on a bench at the back of the class as punishment for talking during class. College-going students. Fuck. We were expected to the best sponges we could possibly be. I had multiple professors whose idea of imparting an education involved sitting at a desk while a randomly picked student stood in front of the class and read from the textbook. We had a fixed syllabus and all of us studied the same thing. We had, much like in school, a classroom that we sat in all day and the lecturers came and went. We left our class to go to the lab, but all theory was taught in a single classroom. I had the choice of one elective in my four years of engineering. In the fourth year of engineering, for one semester we got to choose between Computer Graphics and Artificial Intelligence.

So, I was learning a sum total of nothing, and I was as passionless about computer science as I had been when I signed up. But all was not lost. I met and made some good friends in college. We hung out (outside college, never on campus) and did what all kids that age do – we had profound conversations about life, the universe and everything. We convinced ourselves that we were going to change the world. We never let the specifics of how bother us.

The Turning Point

In my final year of engineering my university required, as a condition of receiving a degree, that every student work on an industry-sponsored project. We were encouraged to create groups of two to four students and then scour companies in the area in the hope of finding someone in the industry willing to bet that time spent with us would not entirely be time flushed down the toilet. The idea was to find a ‘project guide’, a mentor from the industry. Said guide would have an idea that needed to be implemented in software and would guide us, over the period of our final year, in the process of coding said idea to life. Eventually a ‘guest’ professor from another college would be invited to discuss our projects with us and grade us. We would also get to showcase our projects at an inter-college project competition.

Eventually our little group secured a guide for our project. And he changed the course of my career.

His first act was informing and then convincing us that we were we unworthy. He illustrated, in painful detail, how very little we knew. He spent many happy hours (well, happy for him anyway) putting us firmly in our places, and very low places those were indeed. I had my pride, and the more he pushed me, the more I longed to push back. And so, for the first time since I set foot in college, I applied myself. I learned about Operating Systems and File Systems. I learned how to code and debug. I learned a smattering of Security. I worked hard to prove that I was not the bumbling, drooling idiot that he seemed convinced that I was. As I got good at these things, I also discovered that I enjoyed them.

Over the course of that one hard year, working at least ten hours a day seven days a week, I was transformed into an engineer worth her salt. Oh and our project won first prize at the inter-college competition in the Networking and Server Technologies category. We also won numerous other prizes sponsored by various companies and our prize money totalled to a little less than one year’s college tuition (though that had to be divided three ways). This was my first actual taste of both success and money, and I loved it.

We part ways here, Constant Reader, with me a bona fide Computer Engineer ready to take the computing world by storm. Until part three, goodbye.

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14 thoughts on “The BackStory of Mrs. BITA: Part 2”

  1. Love this continuing saga! Perhaps it would benefit American students if they were not constantly entertained. Just work hard and learn, dang it! And what a stroke of fortune to stumble into a profitable career you enjoy…

    1. True that. I still sometimes can’t quite believe how well that worked out. It seems ridiculous, given how completely clueless and uninterested I was at the time.

  2. Wowza! I had no idea the education system in India worked that way. That’s nuts! I always think it’s crazy how we expect young people to map out their lives at age 16 – 18. It’s even harder when there’s so much pressure to definitively decide on your career before you’ve really had a chance to check it out. But it sounds like it worked out in your favor. 🙂 I’m really not a fan of being told what to wear (inner raging feminist rears her ugly head)– grr.

    1. To be fair, that is how it worked way back when I went to college. I don’t really know if it still works in quite the same way. Anecdotally, I know that more Indians are choosing non-traditional career paths than when I was entering college. I’ve also heard that they no longer use board exam marks for entrance to state colleges, I believe they now have an separate entrance exam for that as well.

      And I completely agree that it is insane for anyone, Indian or not, to make a career choice that young. At that age you literally know nothing about anything. Making a decision of that size at that time is practically criminal.

      And to you last point, grr indeed. There are many things that I took for granted at the time because that was just what I was used to that now make me go grrrr rather fiercely.

  3. So interesting how one person can change your life ” And he changed the course of my career”. I’m not sure about his tactics, but it sounds like it worked for you! Such an interesting read – so different than my own experience. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. His methods were harsh, but a swift kick in the pants is what I needed most of all at that stage of my life and he delivered.

  4. Again I love the different perspective and look forward to the conclusion. It sounds like college in india was all defined by what you make of it. I.e. You had to go outside the curriculum to truly learn. While I wonder about his methods the guy that pushed you had the right idea. So many people even in the US graduate college and think it taught you what you need to succeed. The reality is all it did is teach you to be self motivated and test your ability to learn (if it was successful). True learning comes by doing.

  5. What a fascinating look into the Indian educational system, Mrs. BITA! I think it’s great you fell into a career path that turned out to be a good fit for you. I don’t suppose this is always the case. Looking forward to part 3. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It most certainly isn’t. I imagine that there are hundreds and thousands of kids who got pushed into careers that they were ill suited for, or careers that they grew to hate, instead of growing to love. I feel incredibly lucky.

  6. That testing sounds brutal. While it took me a lot longer time to find my current career, I enjoyed the freedom of figuring out what I didn’t want to do. 🙂 I really miss working in the geotechnical engineering field and wonder how things would be different if I had gone back for an engineering degree instead. We’ll never know, except I’d guess I’d be broke, still paying off student loans and wondering how people retire at 65 much less earlier. Probably also a lot of second guessing not going for the “big bucks” in petroleum. Life has a funny way of changing things up for you. In my case for the better this time.

    Picking your college and major reminded me of the scene in the Bee Movie where they’re standing in line tog e their job. Jobs that come open are posted on the board, and whichever one is open when you’re at the counter is what you’re given, with no real choice in the matter. Sort of a shrug, and a “That works, I guess.”

    Looking forward to reading part 3!

    1. I wonder how life would have turned out for me if I had had more choices. For all I know, in my infinite wisdom at 17 I would have picked some rubbish major that meant that I would never have been able to dream of FIRE now.

      Oh my – yes, it was almost exactly like that scene! When there are so many people competing for so few resources, I guess you are just grateful that you get _something_.

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