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Rising through higher education

First-generation learners D Ilakkiya and S Keerthana talk about how going to college has changed their lives
“I used to be afraid of speaking in English because I had no exposure to it in my school days. But after joining college, we had many training programmes that made it easy for rural candidates like me to learn the language. We also have many career guidance courses. I now realise that no matter where you come from, education can help you rise,” says D Ilakkiya, a third-year Bachelors student of Mathematics at Seethalakshmi Ramaswamy College (SRC) in Tiruchi.

For S Keerthana, who is studying her third year in Electronics and Communication Engineering at the MAM College of Engineering and Technology (MAMCET), Siruganur, with the help of Chennai-based Agaram Foundation, higher education has opened up a new world.

“My life is very different now. I feel I have grown as a person under the guidance of my college and the Agaram Foundation. Now my priorities are not just about education, but also being a better human being,” she says.

In a way, both Ilakkiya and Keerthana are pioneers.

As the first in their families to opt for higher education, they have faced some very tough personal situations just to embark upon this new journey.

Fresh to education

First-generation learners are a growing part of the global demography, particularly in India, which has the world’s largest youth population. This growth has been supported by an increase in educational institutions. Statistics on the official website of the University Grants Commission (UGC) show that the number of degree-awarding institutions in the country has gone up from 30 in 1950-’51 to 895 in 2016-’17.

Inevitably, gender plays an important role in the way education is accessed in India. A 2014 study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that while more than 88% of girls passed the CBSE Class X exams (as compared to 78% of boys), and were also enrolling in bigger numbers for undergraduate and diploma courses, they were still not as visible in the workforce.

Socio-economic pressures

And while going to college may have become a given in the lives of innumerable young women in Indian cities, the situation is quite different for female rural students.

“Many of the girls who studied with me in school had to get married and some even have children now, though they too had wanted to go to college,” says Ilakkiya, who comes from a farming family in T Kalathur village.

“There are both positive and negative reactions to my education in my community. Some people appreciate my father for encouraging me to study even though he himself is a school dropout. But there are others who say, ‘she’s just a village girl, what is she going to do with a degree? Why not get her married off?’”, she adds.

Financial pressure has been a challenge for Keerthana, whose widowed mother is the sole breadwinner for their three-member family in their native Thuraiyur town. “My father died of kidney failure when I was in Class 4. Since then, my mother has worked at many jobs to support me and my younger sister. A few years ago, she learned typewriting to become a data entry operator. I didn’t realise how tight our finances were because my younger sister and I studied throughout in Government schools and my mother’s income was enough for us. The struggle of finding the right college and making the fees affordable made me understand how tough my mother’s life has actually been,” she says.

Keerthana’s younger sister is studying Physiotherapy at a college in Tiruchi.

Career dreams

When asked about her own choice of subject, Keerthana says her marks in Class 12 (1021/1200), made her eligible for an Engineering seat. “If I want to support my family in the future, I will need a professional course like ECE to get me into the workplace,” she says.

Ilakkiya, on the other hand, found Mathematics to be the ideal subject for her, because she didn’t want to become an engineer. She works part-time in her college’s Internet browsing centre, a job that earns her a stipend of around Rs. 1000-1500. “It’s a small amount, but I’m happy that it helps me take care of my expenses,” says Ilakkiya, who has also qualified for a job as an elementary level school teacher through campus placement.

Overriding their diffidence in adjusting to the English-medium higher education, both the first-generation learners have found a space for their own dreams. “I’d like to study further and perhaps get a doctorate in Mathematics. I’m very interested in topology,” says Ilakkiya, referring to the study of geometrical properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures.

Keerthana has already tasted a modicum of success in her subject. She was part of a 6-member team from MAMCET that participated in the Smart India Hackathon 2017, held at Jaipur, Rajasthan. “We worked on an automated ticket checking system that could be used in public transport, to prevent manual interruptions. Our project didn’t win any prizes, but our team reached the finals,” says Keerthana.

A valuable lesson she has picked from Agaram Foundation, says Keerthana, is that she must mentor at least one other first-generation learner.

The way ahead

With certain courses becoming more highly sought after than others, both the young women feel that students should be prepared better to face disappointment.

“To commit suicide because one hasn’t passed a crucial exam or got admission to a chosen course is not right. Why not use our failure as a means to learn better?” says Ilakkiya.

“Education is just one part of our life,” says Keerthana. “There is no awareness among students, that if they don’t get one subject, they can always opt for something else. It’s not a bad thing to desire a course, but we must also know our limitations. If we believe in ourselves, we would never consider exam failure as a reason to take our own lives.”


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