By Tanzila Mukhtar
“My expedition from local to global”
‘An eye-opener, an effective avenue to understand and evaluate major education systems’
I grew up in the politically and economically challenged vale of Kashmir. Being at the interface of multi-dimensional cultures, still following stringent traditions, dating back hundreds of years, Kashmir is a culturally peculiar region of Asia. Lassitude in every morsel, be it education or reform, each day we as students lived through crises. It’s a child’s nightmare to live through such turmoil. We would not know when the city would shut down or when a strike would be called for. It was arduous to envisage our future and manage our exhausting syllabi each year. I recall there were days when we were stuck at school until late evenings, as it wasn’t deemed secure to leave the premises. Other instances were frequent when the school would be closed and we would get stunned after reaching the campus. I was a student who loved school and activities, often demotivated by the divergence. I would gaze at the world outside Kashmir as an alien land where everything seemed ‘possible, available, inclusive, advanced and normal’. Education was incessant outside the borders of the valley and my only aspiration.
I am a ‘small town’ girl who grew up with big dreams. I loved the idea of education and enlightenment. For me, learning was an absolute must to accelerate one’s thought process. I am a big patron of change, reform and transformation. I always strengthened the beliefs of multitude of one’s perspectives by absorbing more knowledge and expanding not just in one’s intellectual capacities but also in the social evolution. This evolution has to start from education, from an inherent realization that education is the first and the foremost basic/ mandatory expertise everyone should avail. Since I have seen a system that is close to chaotic, I have chosen to write about my transition from chaos to the more settled, respectful and responsible education systems, in Switzerland, France and the USA.
Global Perspectives Programme, as reflected by the name, provides forays for expanding our knowledge base about the global higher education systems. It has been a great opportunity to be able to draw parallels between the Swiss and the American higher education systems. When the group compared the two, I always compared four. I am quite international in my educational background. Having studied in India, the UK and now Switzerland, I think in a multi-dimensional style. I am well aware of the research funding opportunities, PhD and post-doctoral programmes, job opportunities, alternative careers etc. pertaining to the Indian and the British system. GPP expanded my perspective about these genres of research and development in the context of the Swiss, French and American systems.
I started my GPP journey as a naïve, blank space but have grown up to know more about all these critically important aspects of my academic landscape. These are things I needed and many more like me would find it equally useful and implementing. In today’s idealistic times, when research is becoming more translational and funding more obsolete, it’s imperative to know about funding opportunities for basic research. It is required to know about stable research positions, to facilitate smooth transitions and also, to foster a cordial environment between the personal and professional life; in order to strike a balance between publishing and not perishing. Through GPP, we had the opportunities to visit some of the top-notch research Universities in the US. We visited Harvard, MIT, Boston College and Bunker-Hill community college. We learnt about different facets of the American education system, ranging from highly competitive graduate schools like Harvard and MIT to community colleges like Bunker Hill, that contribute positively to the education system. Community colleges prepare the underprivileged students, for the graduate schools and that aspect of their curriculum impressed me the most. Apart from providing a wide range of vocational trainings in order to prepare students for their selected and specialized skill-sets, community colleges also provide courses that the students can credit and integrate with their under graduation year in the elite private Universities. Thereby, saving not only a year worth of tuition but also, learning from a cloud of educational institutions. Exposure and experience are crucial for better learning and the community colleges provide a special revelation to its students, catering to their igniting minds by also being considerate about their financial background.
Switzerland has a different system. Here, the vocational training system (offering apprenticeships) provides a medium of equal opportunities to the students. They are employed and trained by companies who pay them a small salary while they study and can get respectful jobs very conveniently. The starting salaries of a technician and someone been to a graduate school in Switzerland are quite comparable, throwing the entire need for students to follow the higher education path into question. Some students, who aspire to achieve only financial security without investing more years of their life in the higher education, go through this alternate education system. Due to the cultural disparity between the American and Swiss systems, it is evident that the vocational training in the US does not command as much respect, money or any job security like in Switzerland. In the US, people who are merely technicians are socially unequal to the ones who attend the graduate schools. Needless to say, the community colleges in the US may be able to cater to multiple groups of students, ones wanting to learn certain skill-sets, preparing for a technical job, to ones who prepare for regular graduate school. But, they are not able to incline a similar respect and acceptability by the society.
On a similar note, this is exactly the case in India as well but a bit more dramatic. The country has a literacy rate of 74% according to the 2011 census, of which the higher education is a small fraction. The lack of vocational training centers is another challenge. In India, techniques and skill-sets are culturally and socially inherited. There are minimal schools for bakers, locksmiths, carpenters, plumbers etc. These workers learn from one another or by observation, which includes no formal degrees. There is gender-based disparity as well, which is an entirely different issue. Women are restricted to certain skills and jobs of being domestic helps, or workers in construction sites, with no formal training. Also, culturally, the people who work as laborers, technicians etc. are paid inadequate and respected even lesser. In an inherently, patriarchal Indian social set-up, the chances of reform are slow and sluggish. The past governments have implemented many new programmes directed at improving the skill-sets, teaching more people about the advanced techniques etc. and also new schools have been opened where vocational courses are being taught. There has been progress over the years but the society is not open to accept these courses as equal to the graduate school education as yet.
GPP provided an avenue to learn about the challenges each of these education systems have. The bigger question is those challenges are intimately connected with each of the social set-ups. I want to write about what is next, after GPP. When I think about my experiences and decide to pen them down, I feel I need to write more about what I want to do next. I need to focus on how can I contribute, how can I aid in reforming the systems, how to bring forth the awareness and to share this experience with more people who can follow this chain. ‘Change is within each of us, we all can contribute to make a difference within our own limits and beyond!’
“Rain drops make an ocean,
rain drops make the sea,
change is not about you or them,
it always starts with me!”
- making use of social media,
- spreading awareness among locals, about global perspectives,
- working locally and implementing the global policies,
- spreading the word of respect and love over contempt about every kind of job,
- being vocal about the challenges,
- being vocal about the proposed solutions
- connecting dots and helping each other
- preparing an informed youth
- grooming leaders in every aspect of the social scene
- promoting and practicing educational freedom and equality
are a few to name. There is always going to be tremendous potential in each of us. We hold an absolute power to bring forth the greater good, to accelerate the progress, to process the reforms. We can be the pioneers of a new era, where life is based on equality and people are based on justified merit.
I personally envision being a worker of research, to contribute to community by working closely with NGOs for women empowerment and for children. I want to be a patron of education and an inspiration to the millions of students who think any conflict or poverty could endanger their goals and clip their wings. In my life, I have learnt to fly above my differentiations. I have dreamt to think past the narrow-minded regimes of our culture and I plan to look ahead, above and beyond any failure with a greater perseverance and determination. For me, a pro-active and progressive attitude for an accelerated evolution is a pre-requisite, to follow and achieve one’s purpose in life. I strongly believe in the following quote,
“If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. – Vincent Van Gogh
Through GPP, I found the most proficient mentors, and the best of the friends. The groups from Zurich, Basel and Virginia Tech were very international and it’s a privilege to having shared a valuable part of my life’s experiences with all of them. I perceive myself as a butterfly still cocooned and trying to open unto the world and spread my wings. I want to serve with my passionate desire to make a difference and for sure the GPP experience has added more color palettes to my existence. It is the beginning of my story. And I look forward to make it more exciting and accomplishing!
Name: Tanzila Mukhtar
Profession: PhD student, University of Basel
Domicile: Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir