Checking my phone late in the evening last week, I noticed that our final semester results had been published. The notification didn’t bring the usual nervousness that typically accompanies result-checking; this time, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect.

To begin with, our last exams were bizarre in and of itself. Would any sane person have imagined writing their engineering papers completely within the comfort of home, with the only expectation that the answers be sent back neatly scanned in a span of 2 hours and 45 minutes? That they would be asked to write a 100 marks paper, which would only need a score out of 70 that could then be scaled back up to 100, and with no other strings attached? Even with forecasts of normalization based on past SGPA’s, to say that our batch had a blast would be an understatement. (A pandemic would do that for you).

So when the results were published, they did look a little more picture perfect than usual. But in that moment, it didn’t feel like anything more than the results of yet another semester of engineering. I took a screenshot, sent it to my parents, and left it at that.

It was a coincidence that I happened to read Tara Westover’s memoir just the week before.

At the time, I had this idea in my mind for some reason that I was stepping into a motivational book about someone learning how to learn all by herself after receiving no formal education as a child. Educated was about learning by yourself - but about the world at large and about yourself, coming from someone who led an unconventional life of seclusion until adulthood. Tara Westover paints a vivid picture of the sort of childhood she had in her mountain village, brought up by religious fundamentalist parents who didn’t believe in modern medicine and who prepared rigorously for the end of the world.

The first half was harrowing and tiring to get through - you get to read how the family jumped from one trauma-inducing situation to another, both physical and mental, with seemingly no lessons learned in between. Regardless of the authenticity of the nitty-gritty details of her past, the core of her story still holds weight: in a poetic narrative style, she paints an image of not just how it was like to have a bizarre and traumatic childhood, but also sheds light on the long-lasting effects of gaslighting, emotional and physical abuse, as well as how it shapes a person’s identity for the rest of their life.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover

However, the sections that plagued me were from the second half, as she discovered what it meant for her to be educated - learning, unlearning and relearning things in different contexts and phases of her life. “I read through the afternoon and into the evening, developing for the first time a vocabulary for the uneasiness I had felt since childhood”, she writes in one chapter, upon discovering the works of first wave women’s rights advocates like Mary Wollstonecraft for the first time.

In studying philosophy and history, Tara recontextualizes her life and learns to trust her own perception of the world. Looking at reading and learning as a part of this search to make some sense out of your life as it unravels in all it’s messiness - to know that there have been other people there before you who have gone through the same things as you have, and have articulated their feelings in a much better way than you - to know that people like you wrote history - this is a very grounding thought. Her education, essentially, was then all about self discovery, and about discovering her place in this world.

It’s been over two weeks since I’ve turned the last page, and I’ve been trying to find a few answers of my own: was I curious enough in my own learning? Have I given things the amount of depth they deserved or have I unwittingly been just another cog in the system at times? What, ultimately, did my education mean to me?

As I sat around the dining table that night surrounded by cousins and Pappa asked if anyone knew that my results were out and the family broke out in excitement, it suddenly dawned on me - that this wasn’t just another result, that it indicated I was well and truly an engineer by degree now.

This shouldn’t be a big deal, really. Each year, India sees 1.5 million fresh engineering graduates, with CSE graduates being the obvious majority. In the past decade, engineering graduates have been considered a breed of their own; an engineering degree seen as a fresh canvas for anyone who didn’t know what to do after 12th and were ready to experiment. Which is not a completely bad thing - this has made our engineering campuses livelier, throbbing with people with a multitude of interests than it otherwise would have been. (That a small percent of these 1.5 million ended up here out of interest would be an inconsequential fact, because the person that came in wouldn’t be the one that goes out.)

And yet, seeing Pappa’s usually well masked and inscrutable face beaming with pride that night, I let the facts of my own life sink in. I wouldn’t be just another engineering graduate to my family - I was, afterall the first engineer on my mother’s side and the first female one on my father’s side of our little family. India might have an engineer in every corner, but that was not going to dampen their spirits. (Or mine, as it turned out. Their excitement was contagious.)

To say that life as an engineering student turned out completely different from how I expected it to go would be a major understatement. Over the course of the last month, moving from one farewell ceremony to another, we all talked about how campus life had shaped us as individuals. Looking back at the last four years, we talked fondly about the clubs we were part of, the events we participated in, the events we organized and all the adventures in between. It was the life that the campus offered that mattered. I think we all forgot a bit about the degrees we came here for - or maybe it was just me.

My fascination towards computers and the abracadabra of it all was built over a long period of time - it probably started sometime around 3rd grade, when Pappa showed me for the first time how to piece together different cables into their sockets to get our little desktop system to power up: the monitor would light up with a warm blue color, a shiny windows logo slowly waving on screen, and it would make that soothing chime while you logged into the little magic box.

One thing led to another, and by the time I had to choose a stream of study after 10th, I had no doubt about what I wanted. My first class with our computer science teacher Vineeta Ma’am cemented that certainty further for me - she was sharp, analytical, and taught us programming without making us feel like we were being taught. In each class she presented us with a logical puzzle, gave us the basic building blocks to solve it, and watched as we scratched our heads trying to reach the perfect solution. It was the only subject that I actually went home and looked back at what was taught in class, as I tried out little programs on my own system. I was completely, utterly, hopelessly in love.

And so it was a no-brainer that I would be pursuing Computer Science when board exams were done and dusted. The ’engineering’ part happened to be a bonus tag that came along with it.

In our first year, we all were taught about the basics of the other branches, along with a little bit of engineering physics and chemistry (oh sweet chemistry - how naive I was in thinking we broke up for good in high school).

Engineering mathematics and I had a complicated relationship. I was good at solving the numerical problems, but while math used to be a favorite subject before CS came along, it no longer felt intuitive like it used to. I didn’t expect mathematics to be riddled with equations that offered no context. I could still solve all the questions asked in the question paper, but I had no clue as to what I was actually doing, or where I would have to apply this knowledge in real life - or even if I would know how to apply them in a practical context should the need arise1.

Operating System Concepts by Silberschatz aka the ‘dinosaur book’. Apparently the dinosaurs are meant to signify the evolution of operating systems over the years (and survival of the fittest to an extent.)

Operating System Concepts by Silberschatz aka the ‘dinosaur book’. Apparently the dinosaurs are meant to signify the evolution of operating systems over the years (and survival of the fittest to an extent.)

The core subjects were a curious mixed bag. Some of it I am glad to lock away in the past (microprocessors, I am looking at you), but most of them were delightfully engaging. Operating Systems in particular has a special place in my heart for revealing to the child in me the unknown secrets about this magic box, the ones that compelled me the most - and now that I know, it’s hard not to think of all the applications and tabs open on my laptop screen in anything other than in terms of multithreads and context switches (this awareness is also directly proportional to how slow my laptop could get). It’s also one of the few subjects I actually bought the textbook for: a small and thick red book with dinosaurs on the cover, with chapters that were compulsively readable.

Between learning about database management and computer architecture, between electives about computer vision and artificial intelligence, life unravelled.

There were periods of intense love but also periods where I couldn’t bring myself to care enough about academics, despite everything. There were burnouts and periods mired in fatigue. One semester I racked up such a hefty fee in overdue library fees over textbooks I hadn’t even referred to properly that I decided I would never take books from the central library, ever again (the department library I would continue to abuse). The same semester I would sleep through classes from the first morning hour to the last, with no partiality to the subject or the teacher taking the class. Inorder to not offend the teachers with what would appear to be my supreme indifference, I would skip classes to get some strong tea from the canteen within my system, to see if some of that drowsiness and fatigue could be kicked off - at least enough to keep my head up for the next hour.

(Not to mention the hours skipped running around for other events. Quite a few papers I have passed with good grades only because of sheer last minute panic and the existence of short notes online.)

A few months ago, I came across an article written by Dr. RVG Menon for the college magazine. One particular part stuck with me:

I [..] cannot accept wholeheartedly, the frequent demand from the industry to make engineering education more employment oriented. Of course the industry would always like to get readymade graduates who can step into their jobs with the minimum of training or preparation. But engineering is such a vast and varied field that no college can readily prepare them for any job. They may go into teaching and/or research, design, production or management in a hundred different fields. How can the college prepare the students for all these jobs? All that we can and should do is to prepare them for learning themselves on the job.

— Dr. RVG Menon

He goes on to talk about how things like the lack of communication skills in engineering students that we cry about is a result of a faulty primary education system2, and not something that an engineering college can put a band-aid over. That our engineering colleges do not make their students industry ready is a common complaint everyone hears at some stage. I could see where he was coming from.

In my last four years, I’ve been involved with a number of professional organizations within our college that all have more or less the same vision: to expose students to the life outside of the engineering college, to get our engineering students industry ready. Being able to smoothly navigate the job market is definitely a skill everyone should have, when engineers are ubiquitous and jobs are not. This is where clubs and peer learning groups fill in the existing gaps, to build a richer student community on the side. Not to mention all the many MOOCs you can find online on the latest advancements in your field.

But on top of all the much needed soft skill preparation and additional online courses, is a focus on our academics - the foundations of what forms your core - underappreciated and undervalued?

Make no mistake - I am under no impression that our engineering curriculum is perfect. Among other things, we are forced to follow a fixed set of papers regardless of our personal aptitudes and interests, without the usual amount of choice of electives that almost all foreign universities provide. Our syllabi is constrained by a lack of humanities, and is so rigid in its boundaries to the point that interdisciplinary collaboration ends up being a herculean task while it should have been the norm. The one thing that I strongly feel should be made a part of our curriculum - a course on ethics in engineering - is non-existent. Add on top of this the ever changing exam schedules that drag out the semesters forcing students to completely replan anything good they may have planned to do over the semester break, and you’ve got a beautiful cherry on top.

From the days of Kannur/Calicut/Cochin universities, we have come a long long way indeed. Starting from the batch of 2019, KTU also seems to have opened up the chance to take minors in a different branch of your choice. By completely revamping the working day such that classes finish by afternoon so students may make use of the remaining time to explore whatever they want, a bold stand seems to be taken. All these seem to be steps in the right direction from a university that aspires to be better. How things will pan out in actual execution, only time will tell.

What, ultimately, did my education mean to me?

I know I went into many tangents as I searched for an answer to this question, and I am still not sure I have an answer for this yet.

I do not think that the value of my education comes from the degree that I now possess, but I also do not think that this is something that should be trivialized. Your education is not just about the one you receive formally - anyone can attest to that. I’m privileged enough to have found what I loved at the right time so that when everything else got tough, the fact that I was learning something I could be excited about kept me holding on to it tight.

There is a lot more I have to learn still, much more to dive in depth. But unlike my usual feelings of inadequacy, there’s a solace in me with that thought this time - I do not need to have all the answers yet.

There is a lot more to learn, and a lot more time to figure it all out.

1. If you are/were in similar straits and have wondered why the hell eugen stuffs have to be calculated or what beautiful nonsense the fourier transform was helping us do, 3Blue1Brown is an amazing youtube channel that will place things in context with the help of intuitive visualizations. Do take a look and #makemathcoolagain

2. The full article by DR. RVG Menon, ‘An Interlude at Kannur’, can be found here. Pages 152-153.

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