Fortunate Setbacks – A Disillusioned Science Student Finds Her Way To Harvard

Sanya Sagar
My vision is to ensure that our schools become spaces that encourage innovation, critical thinking, and curiosity. What students experience at school should have the power to transcend school walls and spread to families and communities, that is the only way Education will ever be able to fulfil the mandate entrusted upon it.

Learn from Sanya and others like her

Life has a mysterious way of making sense, sometimes through fortunate setbacks. Sanya Sagar studied Zoology Honours at Delhi University, immediately after which she taught for two years at a government school in Jahangir Puri, Delhi, as part of the Teach For India Fellowship. For two years she worked with an NGO as the Education Skills Content Lead, creating stories and games to teach skills to children in public schools in Bihar and Jharkhand. This August, she will be joining the Learning and Teaching program at the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University.

This is how she made it happen.

Most people will say Education is a means to big, important, development goals. It is imperative to alleviate poverty, to create better health conditions, to balance social inequities – and, indeed, it is. However, Education is also a fundamental human experience. It is an opportunity to explore the vastness of your mind and of the world, and to learn to create value through the things you do. Currently, a vast majority of our population is denied this experience. My vision is to ensure that our schools become spaces that encourage innovation, critical thinking, and curiosity. What students experience at school should have the power to transcend school walls and spread to families and communities, that is the only way Education will ever be able to fulfil the mandate entrusted upon it.

It has been a series of fortunate setbacks that has led me to where I am today. The first setback was not being able to attend university abroad after finishing school. Certain I wanted to be a geneticist, I settled for what I thought was the next best thing and enrolled at Delhi University to study Zoology. By the end of third year, I had argued with almost every professor about the way we were ‘learning’ and wanted nothing to do with Science anymore. I saw something similar happen to my niece who attends a public school. When her teacher changed, my niece just did not want to go to school anymore. We were experiencing the same thing, just at different ages. That is when I decided to apply for the Teach For India fellowship so that I could learn more about our education system.

My next setback was realizing that although I loved working with my students, I wasn’t made to be a teacher. At this point, I switched tracks once again. Throughout my Fellowship, I had focused on using literature as a tool to teach. An avid reader, I joined a literary agency as an Editor right after the Fellowship ended. I loved my job and felt very strongly about what I was doing. However, I found myself unable to turn my back on the students I had worked with and, after a year, could no longer resist the urge to go back to the education sector.

But this time I went back knowing exactly what I wanted to do – focus on using stories to teach. I was lucky to find my next role – working as part of the content team at Going to School, where we wrote stories about local entrepreneurs to teach children 21st Century Entrepreneurial Skills.After working there for almost two years, I realized that if I wanted to excel at what I do I would have to learn more about it. I also wanted to learn how to apply this method to regular subjects students learn at school. While experience has no parallel, knowledge is of great importance too. If I wanted to create content for children, I needed to know how their minds work, what motivates them and why.

At this point, four years after graduating from college, I finally had clarity on what I wanted my career to be and I applied for a Master’s degree in Education.We often think of mentors as older individuals who just pass on their wisdom to us. I believe anyone can be a mentor to us if we make an active effort to learn from them. My biggest mentors have been my first set of students. They have lived an entirely different life experience and have taught me to check myself when I start believing I, alone, know what’s best – no individual can ever know that. Change must always be inclusive and collaborative.

During my second year at Teach For India my Manager pushed me beyond, what I thought were, my limitations. She constantly asked more of me, and while that was frustrating at the beginning, I could not thank her enough by the end of the Fellowship. My classroom received so much more because she taught me that we are all capable of more than we believe we are. Similarly, I learnt to think big while I worked at Going to School. I learnt that nothing is impossible, and that ideas tend to get diluted by the time of implementation. If you start small, you will be left with nothing to work with. If you start big, you will still be left with something extraordinary.

A constant mentor in the past two years has also been a dear friend who always reminds me that it’s alright to place value upon yourself. It is easy to get lost in your workplace, to settle for less than you deserve, to say yes unquestioningly at the expense of what you want. He makes sure I am always asking myself, ‘Is this opportunity allowing me to do my best? Are they valuing me and my inputs? Am I pushing myself every day?’ If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’, I know I need to look at what lies ahead.Very recently, I faced yet another setback.

Having received admission to the Learning and Teaching program at Harvard University, I realized my family and I did not have enough resources to fund the degree. Even after a huge student loan, I was short of a substantial amount. In a moment of despair, I decided to start a crowdfunding campaign. The worst that would happen is that nobody would contribute, and I would still not be able to afford it. But there was a chance that I may be able to raise enough, and I decided to take that chance. Being as introverted as I am, this has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

I put myself out there every day, requesting people to give me a moment of their time and a part of their hard-earned funds. I put my faith in friends, family, and strangers. At the end, collective action proved itself once again. I was able to raise a significant amount – both online and offline – through crowdfunding, and I will be leaving for University this fall. I brought people together, decided to push my limits, and thought big – all the lessons I had learnt from my mentors came together. The Learning and Teaching program is an opportunity for me to develop a comprehensive understanding of how people learn, lessons I hope to apply to public schools in India once I return next year.If there is anything I can pass on as a lesson from my journey, it is that you do not need to be in a rush to define yourself. It is alright to not know what you want to do even after you have finished school. It is alright to switch paths after finishing your undergraduate degree. It is alright to switch paths at any point in time, provided that you make informed choices.

A great way of making such informed choices at an early stage is to intern and work. Intern as much as you can at places you see as potential workplaces for your future self, work at different places that intrigue you. Figure out, through experience, if it really is what you enjoy doing.I speak to a lot of young people, fresh out of college or wrapping up their final year, who are eager to immediately leave the country to pursue their Master’s. To them I say, wait. Gather abundant experience in which you will place the knowledge you are hoping to gather. Knowledge is always more useful when placed within a context. Acquire that context through work.Lastly, as so many people have rightly said, move out of your comfort zone. Don’t say no to internships because the office is far away, or because they don’t pay all that much. Don’t expect to bring profound change within the first couple of years of your professional life. That’s when you have to learn the ropes, do odd jobs, observe. Respect every step that comes your way because they’ll all add up to finally take you where you want to be. In conclusion: work hard, create value, and don’t ever stop learning.

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