London Calling

Armed with an Oyster card, a sling bag, sunglasses and comfy shoes – I was the happiest when I was out on the streets – Oxford Street, Downing Street, Bond Street and so many more. The etymology of simply the streets of this beautiful town called London, among its abbeys and churches and towers and palaces and shopping arcades, continue to stay with me as fresh strawberry stains on a picnic spread. Yes! That’s where it all started – a picnic at the Hyde Park with my bestie and her wonderful family!

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It’s not a new idea – a picnic. Yet it hides within it a surreal love for relaxed conversations, careless retire and just being. Refreshing this familiar vocation along with my first love, theatre, continues to be the highlight of my escapades at this city of drama! We walked into a packed audience for ‘The Play that Goes Wrong’ in the middle of the day! Are you kidding me – that’s luxury! A day later we were watching Shakespeare at the Regents Park open air theatre over Pimms and peanuts – really, who needs more!?

Well, a counsellor needs more. She must also use this trip to gain insights into how the universities in United Kingdom add value. And so, started the exploration to LSE, Kings and even the Cambridge University. Anika Kohler.jpg

A memorable train ride to the city of Cambridge (with a Norwegian mother of four, taking her 16 year old son for an open day at the university) leading up to the Cambridge University – the grandeur of 31 colleges, with three admitting women only, along with a fact sheet that reads ‘third oldest university, founded in 1209’, this place exudes the aura of Nobel laureates and geniuses such as Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking. Alleged to have been created by fleeing Oxford scholars, Cambridge is an eclectic mix of the archaic and novel. I was in awe!

I’m an LSR alumni and the pride of my alma mater rings in my interactions. What is it about these places of study that make one develop a sense of self, I wonder. It can’t be academics alone. I think it’s a life long hangover of a culture and ethos that gets so deeply engrained that you become that entity, an identity for the place that gave you its identity.

IMG_9213London hides within it a number of secrets. Not the kind that stay within the royal family, not even the ones on Baker Street; these are unrevealed layers that unfold as you spend time with the city. Thank you for opening up to me dear London.

See you again, soon!

 

 

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What’s the hardest thing to do?

The hardest thing to do is to try and design your emotions to experience a kind of static when inside, you are feeling a tornado of sorts that’s destroying you, hurting you, paining you.
I just left my daughter to boarding school – a new way of life, a very different ethos. We’ve been preparing for this move for the last two months now and there have been a number of moments when I told myself that it will be difficult but only best for her; it 
helped me calm myself. But now, having come face to face with the reality of her actually being there, I feel absolutely torn. I can’t imagine the pain and hurt the experience brought with it.
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You feel the vulnerability of life in these weak moments. I’ve often shared how she’s been my teacher, my student, my muse, my cool breeze, my warm sunshine – how can I then let her be there all by herself. How will she manage…how will I live… Am I being selfish to think like this? I know this is good for her…. yet all these thoughts just seemed to envelope me. For more than 72 hours, I could not seem to reason with myself that what she was about to gain is far and beyond my imagination. I did not know how should I deal with this…what should I do to fill this gap…I don’t want to fill the gap, I kept telling myself. I want her, I want to be able to hug her, kiss her, chat with her for hours… if it wasn’t for some self restraint, I would have really reversed the whole situation as I was miserable.
It was Day 3 and I received an email from her – “I love it here!” she said. She also said that they had eggs for breakfast and that she attended the most fabulous class in Biology and that she had already picked a new book to read and that they celebrated the World Environment Day in the most unique way and so much more…it was one exciting thing after another!
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
– Kahlil Gibran 
And just like that, the emotional mother in me was silenced by the spirited strength of my 15 year old. I felt so proud and re-assured that things will be challenging but that’s where growth lies (for her and perhaps even for me).
I have a new found respect for parents who choose this tough path for their children. It’s about understanding that an empty nest means that your bird is learning to fly among the clouds, at the same time, it’s to do with believing that it’s not just about giving them wings, it’s also about nurturing roots that strengthen them for life. These parents value courage as a developed trait and wisdom as a tough lesson imbibed through experience.
So as I come to terms with the distance between us, I realise that it’s still hard to let go, but it might be harder to hold on…
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Are you Creating a Career Enabling Ecosystem!

Message to Principals and Directors of Schools
Career Concept

The Education space is changing rapidly.

From chalk and duster to whiteboards and tabs, from nonchalantly walking to school to cctv vigilante and bar-coded entry of students through iron gates, from career choices to life decisions – in such a scenario, schools, the custodians of this change need to be equipped with the right answers.

Today more than ever, Career guidance has become of paramount importance. Not only because of the advent of futuristic career options and a change in the educational and career ecosystem, but also because the student of today is not just a pure sciences, commerce or humanities student. The intersection of these options is where opportunities exist. Now while we, as educators, know this, I often feel that the careers are seen in silos – often like an aggregation of degrees and diplomas. It is anything but that. The process of creating a career might go through a college admission, but it is not linear. It must follow a rigorous preparedness routine that focusses on effective communication, deep research and critical thinking.

Just like there is a lot of emphasis on pedagogy in schools, and on subjects, we not only need to prepare our students for the kind of careers coming in the future, we also need the right teachers and mentors who can play a key role in their growth. Schools have to realize the importance of career counseling and that for exceptional results, beginning from Grade 9 students should be exposed to career mentorship that truly links them to their dreams.

University Connection has been established with single minded focus of Empowering Your Career Choices. We allow students and families to think beyond limitations: reach out of their dreams with the correct information and preparation – its integral to our Complete Application Admission Schedule (CAAS). I like to call it THE ROAD TRIP – where every milestone is a learning point and reaching the destination happens by default, almost like destiny.

It has been 15 years in the education sector and I firmly believe that building an empowering learning ecosystem in the present is the only way to secure our future. My plea is that Career development be taken more seriously at schools. It must not be just a once-a-year-session but a continual process of learning and guidance all year round.

Even very reputed schools in India, often have no counselor or have one odd teacher with good communication skills also given the designation of a counselor. Counseling doesn’t work that way! Career mentorship today requires specialized teachers and trainers who can work as mentors with students. My message to schools would be to actually invest in developing a Career Mentorship Division, to invest in their teachers. We are happy to facilitate through our Certificate program in Career Counseling for teachers – This empowers them to become an important part of the student’s journey because while a teacher delivers, a mentor nurtures. Let’s empower together.

 

 

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Looking back @2017

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”- Francis of Assisi.

Untitled designUniversity Connection (UC) was always developed to educate, enthuse and empower the student of today – from school-going teens to young adults in college to even mid-career professionals – UC has engaged with the complete spectrum of student base throughout the year.

Outreach: With publications such as Entrepreneur IndiaHigher Education ReviewThe TribuneThe Hindu and more widening our reach, this year UC launched #UCOnlineCounseling – an initiative to be able to help and support rural or urban, local or outside, Indian or foreign, rich or marginalized, through an online interface with the counselor. This not only brought in students from all parts of the country, it also ensured a seamless interaction with students as far as Dubai and Netherlands. All in all, in the year 2017, we have successfully concluded 210 meaningful Education Counseling Sessions in person and on Skype.

With feedback such as this one by Mariya from Dubai, we feel really encouraged:

“I have always been scared of talking to people over the phone, let alone video conference with them. My nervousness on the day of the counselling wasn't just limited to my phobia, I had a million doubts, a billion questions and absolutely no knowledge of how to put it in the correct words. All of it melted away, as soon as the counselor took over. She did not only clear the fog in my mind, but also gave the clouded path a direction….would recommend University Connection to any and everybody.” 

… more reviews.

In an effort to continue with our philosophy of spreading the ‘right’ information – UC also opened it’s doors to interactions with students and parents over Open House study abroad sessions and University interactions, such as the recently concluded afternoon with University of British Columbia (UBC) representative.

School Interface: Every year UC tries to traverse new locations in the hope of widening it’s mission and sharing career information with more and more in the country. Starting with blessings from the small town of Mhow, an interaction with students of The Army Public School, we moved our caravan to the Billabong High International School, Kanpur, and then to my alma mater, Mater Dei Convent School. While interacting with a number of luminaries from the education fraternity, a recent showcase at the DPS Ghaziabad allowed us to touch more than 3000 lives.

#UCSuccessMeet 2017: University Connection is built on the TRUST of families and parents, the RESOLVE of our students and the COMMITMENT of our Counselors. A celebration of these key elements coming together – were the phenomenal 100% admissions for the year and close to 10 million dollars in scholarships. With admits to Columbia, NYU, UC Berkeley, LSE and more, on May 13, 2017, UC acknowledged all the students, parents & its team for pushing their potential and “Daring to Dream”. The #UCSuccessMeet was the highest trending event at UC.

In an effort towards building an education ecosystem focused on student-centricity & EMPOWERMENT, UC is proud to have been able to initiate the following associations this year:

–      Collaboration with more than 10 NGOs to help our students develop a more grounded approach to community projects and learn to give back. We are proud that one of them (Sahaj) even got accepted for the Youth4Environment Fellowship at URJA and Haiyya.

–      A one-of –a-kind “Counsel the Counselor” training for the team at Empowering the Vision Project – a mission to strengthen the Tibetan community through youth empowerment.

–      University Connection is a proud member of the Udgam Incubator – a first of its kind mentor platform that helps accelerate credible ventures.

–      We are thrilled to continue our association with the International Association of College Admission Counselors (IACAC.org) and also become an active part of online communities such as the Counselor Forum and the Senior School Moms group on FB.

–      UC also continues its patronage to BNI.org, a fulfilling four years with the Delhi South Region at the BNI Exuberrance Chapter.

Thank you one an all for supporting us and encouraging us to push our limits and be more.

WHAT’S NEXT – The Way Ahead in 2018

Now we know that if it does not challenge you, nothing changes.

With our scholarship count for the next year admissions already touching $2Million, watch out for the #UCSuccessMeet 2018! There is greater impetus on #UCOnlineCounseling – 365 days 365 mentoring sessions is the aim. The UC Book Club is making way for the UC Movie Magic and the UC Lecture Series.

“Empowering” – the student, the parent, and the school will stay as the main focus of the year. Training initiatives and perhaps even a Certificate program in Career Counseling is also on the cards. Moreover, if you wish UC could there in your city… that day is not too far.

We promise to continue challenging our limits to help realize our vision of making this world a better place – one student at a time!

Jai Hind.

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The Steps that Build You

The only hurdles are in the mind.
The only progress achieved is through singleminded focus.
And the only rewards are in the strengthening of our inner spirit.

IMG_E0280Paro Taktsang is a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and a temple. When I started the ascent (November 9) towards what is referred to as a monastery at the highest level in Bhutan, at 10,000 plus feet – the Tiger’s Nest – I had many apprehensions. Can I sustain the trek, I have a back problem, I’ve never done this before, what if I faint… just 30 min into the trek, and my mind said, you’re really not cut out for this; one hour later, I was breathless and ready to give up, I was weak and panting and my legs felt numb; as the monastery came in sight, I mustered the courage, bit onto an energy bar, and pushed those breaking muscles, but what seemed close at that point was still 350 steep steps up-n-down away! I was getting out of breath, it had already been three and a half hours of treading this tough Himalyan terrain and my destination was still so many steps away!

 

IMG_0252Now, it’s life-saving to have the right trekking partner with you; Vivek was just perfect, he kept telling me we are just ten minutes away, just ten steps away, just the next step is what counts. I know I’m not in kindergarten, but when you throw yourself into an alien experience, it’s best to trust and follow someone who has more understanding than you. After four gruelling hours of trek, we were finally at Taktsang. Yay! I wanted to soak in the beautiful sights around me, the waterfall, the mountains, and say, ‘Thank you God!’ But all I could think of was the descent back…Seriously, can I not be teleported back to the parking lot, what about flying cars, flying anything, I just cannot walk back, I thought to myself.

Well, we went inside the temple. As is customary in most Buddhist and Hindu tradition, we removed our shoes outside and gave our respect to the deities, lit candles and meditated. It had been an hour inside and when it was time to go back, it wasn’t as if I was a new person with supernatural powers. I was still vary of the trek back, but then my feet felt lighter, could it have been the freezing cold floor under my feet or the magical powers of the Buddha, I can’t say!

 

 

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Something had certainly shifted in my condition; only one thought remained in my mind – It’s not about the long distance I need to cover, it’s about the next step I need to take. It might be amusing for the onlooker, but truly I was taking one step and then the next one and then the next, I really tried not to look at the serpentine path ahead of me. And just when it felt like I could go no more, out of nowhere, a young boy, all of 16 years met us half way. It was getting dark so we found it odd that he was climbing up as we were among the last ones making our way back. We asked him why and he replied that he had visited the Tiger’s Nest – Takstang – in the morning with his friends and had left his bag at the temple by mistake, he was going to get it back. Going back!? I thought to myself. What’s in the bag? I asked him. My school books and 200 rupees. He said. I was speechless! Well, we convinced him to go in the morning as it did not seem safe at that time. He agreed and happily joined us on our way back, sharing stories of the legends of the Tigers nest, his schooling at a Bhutanese school and his mother’s small shop in the village. I could not help but follow how comfortably his canvas-shoes covered feet rested on the uneven, down steep. How could I complain when he wasn’t. It took another four hours to reach the base camp; my feet ached and my calf muscles felt sore, even my knees seemed so exerted; but when I looked up at Takstang and then at myself, it all made sense.

I reckon that there are journeys that make a vacation, a memory, a Facebook post, and then there are journeys that make us who we are. Tashi Delek!

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Are You Feeling Trumped?

“I think we need a back-up plan. Should we also apply to Canada?” called a worried parent of a class XII student soon after the Executive order from President Trump. She’s applied for universities in the United States only and even has close to a hundred thousand dollars scholarship from one. She’s not alone.

Whether you are at school, in college or a young professional aiming for the American dream, President Trump’s comments in the last few weeks may seem to have put your plans in jeopardy. Well, you should know that this unconstitutional and discriminatory ban is in direct opposition of the values that most U.S. universities stand for. My colleagues in the U.S. would like it to be known that the universities in America are known for diversity and inclusion and welcome all persons, regardless of age, gender, sex, race, color, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or disability or handicap. This has been built over years and centuries perhaps – to imagine that they are going to succumb to political agendas and diktats, and ruin this branding built over a lifetime would be pre-mature. So here’s some immediate advice depending on where you are in your journey.

Already studying in the U.S.

– Wait and watch the situation. Allow political sentiment to settle into a meaningful ruling and not mere statements.

– Maintain a high GPA (above 3.0 minimum)

– Work on building your skills and equipping yourself with what the future needs – technology, sustainability, research, progressive business ideas and more.

– Explore industry sectors of importance to you that have presence or headquarters across the world; make a plan B for employment opportunities.

– Don’t allow gossip to build panic within or around you.

Planning to study in the U.S.

– Evaluate why do you want to study in the U.S.

– Programs with built-in OPT and co-op options must be considered first. They allow you to show your work acumen.

– There’s never been a better time to apply to some of the most competitive universities in the U.S. This contrarian sentiment is sure to relax acceptance rates and / or the number of offers the university issues. Do evaluate your chances with your Counselor though.

– Prepare a plan B, a set of applications for another country but don’t necessarily create a plan C or more. This can confuse more than facilitate.

– If immigration is the only reason to apply to the United States, think again.

Have an offer-letter from a university in the U.S.

– Congratulations. Meet your Counselor to evaluate the net value of your move to the particular university / course.

– Speak to students already studying at the university to understand the sentiment and the culture

– Reason over rapture: Prepare another plan only after due consultation with your Counselor.

Remember while there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing, it is important to decipher the right thing to do. Indian students are known to be resilient, persevering, and innovative in their approach to situations and life. This is just one more test; don’t let this one have you ‘trumped!’

Read my recent article in The Tribune, Chandigarh : Time to face the American Dilemma

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Cross Border Education

Sharing some of my thoughts in the December Issue of the Business World Magazine on Cross Border Education

Slide15India is going global with a vengeance. One manifestation of this is the sheer number of youngsters going abroad for a “foreign” degree. In 2016, this number is expected to cross 400,000. The US, predictably, leads the list of destinations. According to the Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, there was a 20.4 per cent jump in Indian students going to the US for higher education in 2015 compared to the previous year. Other favoured destinations are the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Apart from familiarity with English, there are two reasons why these countries have emerged as hotspots for Indian students. First, there is tremendous competition for the limited seats available in world-class Indian colleges. And second, there is a belief that higher studies abroad prepares one better for a global career.

Not surprisingly, this has emerged as a multibillion dollar market with foreign universities and colleges using modern marketing tools, including sales agents, to attract students. For students and parents, the challenge is to make the right decisions in an informed manner. So where can one begin when considering an overseas degree?

Applying
Start early, start with counselling: The first step is to zero in on the right kind of professional counselling and mentors. This is particularly important for students planning to go abroad for undergraduate studies. Charushilla Narula, education consultant and founder, University Connection, suggests, “Students need to start preparing around the ninth standard. The average cost of a basic counselling session could be around Rs 5,000, while an all-inclusive package could be Rs 75,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh. Treat it as the first cost-head in considering study abroad.”

Both students and parents must be prepared to spend time and effort conducting serious planning and research of their own, even before they select a professional counsellor, so they can ask the right questions. Harjiv Singh, founder and CEO of Salwan Media Ventures, has important advice: “Research, research and research. Remember, luck favours the prepared mind.”

Parents must identify a mentor and have their child undergo a counselling session that could include education counselling, aptitude analysis, help to identify courses suited to the child, college research, application process, deciding on the best option if all colleges admit the student, visa formalities, pre-orientation workshops, and then planning for departure. The process can take up to 10 months.Slide14The pitfall to avoid here is “agents” masquerading as mentors. Narula of University Connection says, “Unfortunately, the international education market in India is vitiated with agents, and the agents are attached to certain colleges and universities. That is unethical.” The lesson: pay good money, but pay it to a professional without a vested interest.

Study what, and where? Before taking a final decision, students and parents must have complete clarity on the course, the college or university, and the country. That has to be mapped to career prospects. Rajiv Jamkhedkar, founder and MD of Serengeti Ventures, says: “For undergraduate degrees, a broad area is better than being too specialised.” Thereafter, consider the country to move to. Gaurav Roy, head – Products, BigDecisions.com, says: “Family considerations, social and cultural fit, language and cost may be few factors.”

After the course is over, not all countries allow foreign students to work. This is important for those not considering returning to India for their first job. “Post-study work is an embargo in the UK, although it’s being discussed for relaxation. In the US and Australia, after study, there is no embargo, and one may work there,” says Narula of University Connection. Students and parents need to factor this into their budget.

To zero in on the university, Jamkhedkar says, one should have at least 10 options. “Consider the factors such as budget, reputation of college or course, faculty and job placement record,” he says. Choosing the right college or university is equally important when it comes to career. Roy adds: “Universities have brand value which has a significant impact in the employment market.”

The application process: Having short-listed target institutions, one needs to systematically go through the application process, which differs from country to country. Like, for the UK, the process involves one common application for five colleges, one letter of recommendation and one personal letter accompanied with a fee of £21. In the US, each college requires a separate application with three recommendation letters, a detailed statement of purpose and separate academic sheets. The application fees could be the third expense head, after meeting exam costs. Many students apply to around seven to 10 colleges. “The fees ranges from $60-100 per application per university, while for post-graduation, range could be $60-120 each,” says Narula of University Connection.

Exam costs: The SAT is mandatory in countries such as the US and Singapore, and costs around Rs 30,000. Singh of Salwan Media says, “English-language tests like TOEFL and IELTS typically cost around Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000. Other graduate tests like the GRE and GMAT cost anywhere between Rs 13,000 and Rs 17,000. But examination costs vary depending on which country you want to study in. Then, there are also late fees, rescheduling fees and cancelling fees to consider.”

Zafeena Suresh, senior adviser at the US India Educational Foundation (USIEF), adds: “Other additional costs in this category include retaking the tests, sending test scores to universities the student is applying to, and the application fee, which ranges from $50-250. Students will also need to pay the SEVIS fee and the visa fee for study in the US. The whole application process can alone cost between Rs 1-2 lakh.”

Funding
Parents must set aside enough money to finance all costs, including fees, living expenses, and emergencies, for a period of up to four years. Getting a scholarship would be a bonus, but don’t bank on it. Zafeena of USIEF says, “An undergraduate student (for the US) can expect to pay $30,000-70,000 annually. If you plan to enrol for a master’s programme, tuition and living costs could range between $35,000-50,000 annually. For a doctoral programme, we encourage students to accept admission where the financial aid offer is clear from year one of study. Doctoral students are provided funding in the form of fellowships, or research and teaching assistantships, along with tuition waivers.” The choice of course, country and university should be based on available funds. “Typically a lot of people select first, and then try and find funds for education. This is a wrong decision and could lead to financial stress,” says Jamkhedkar.

Scholarship: How do you go about getting that prized scholarship? Zafeena of USIEF says, “The university is the best source for financial aid, and students should be prudent in their university selection. Doing research on financial aid offers to international students is crucial, as financial aid in any form helps reduce costs.”

Singh of Salwan Media suggests, “Instead of relying on the big $20,000-50,000 scholarships, which are few and far between, look out for small scholarships. There are a lot of $500-2,000 scholarships at various levels that can considerably ease financial burden.” And as far as courses are concerned, according to Narula of University Connection, “The US is open for undergraduate scholarships, while the UK is open to postgraduate scholarships.”

Forex: In 2011, a dollar was about Rs 45. Today, it is Rs 66 — a 45 per cent depreciation! If the rupee depreciates further, your cost could shoot up substantially in Indian currency terms. Jamkhedkar cautions, “If you are pursuing a four-year undergraduate course, your education cost will almost certainly be impacted by depreciation, so you will need more currency. Don’t just look at one-year or admission costs, but also macroeconomic trends.” If you have funds in place, consider opening a bank account abroad in your child’s name, and transfer a portion of the funds at the current exchange rate to hedge the fluctuation risk.

Study and work: After joining university, you can look for work that you are eligible for. Jamkhedkar says: “From the second year, working as a teaching assistant during the semester or interning during breaks is a good option to offset expenses.”

Zafeena of USIEF adds: “In the US, international students can work only 20 hours a week on campus on an F1 visa. Hourly wages range from $8-15. On completion of the course, a student may avail of Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows students to work up to 12 months in an area directly related to their area of study. OPT can be extended up to 17 months for fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Cost and Trade-off
International education doesn’t come cheap. There is some irony in the fact total foreign direct investment from the US in fiscal 2015 was $1.8 billion, while Indians spent $3.6 billion in the US for their children’s education.

A four-year engineering course in the US costs around Rs 30 lakh a year, adding up to Rs 1.2 crore for the entire degree. One needs to calculate the return on investment by considering prevailing pay packages, and see how soon the break-even will be reached. Keep in mind that Euro-pean economies aren’t exactly booming. Management students’ chances may be bleak, but other professionals, such as engineers and doctors, could still be in demand.

Talk with friends and colleagues so that you can avoid the financial mistakes of others, and learn their money-saving tricks. The process of planning to study abroad may seem tedious, but it could change your entire future. So before you get on that plane, invest time in strategic planning. That itself is an important life lesson.

sunil@businessworld.in; @dhawansunil

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)

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