Indian-American high school students continue pushing the envelope

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on March 12, 2019

The accomplishments of these young achievers are as inspirational as their adaptability

The United States (US) National Centre for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), which believes that standardised testing is flawed, says that over 1,000 four-year colleges do not require students to submit their SAT/ACT scores to be considered for admission. The latest to join this list is the most prestigious of them all, the University of Chicago, home to such eminent academics as former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan.

America, which spearheaded standardised testing through it world-class assessments at the 12th-grade level (SAT, ACT) and at the higher education level (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT), appears to be going the other way, with many institutions declaring that they are test-optional.

A big reason is that nearly 150 years after the Civil War, and 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and various reforms aimed at helping minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans), America is still struggling with problems of racial inequity. There’s a collective sense of guilt in the hallways of the most elite colleges and universities. In this narrative, whites and Asian Americans have a leg-up in college admissions because students from these demographic groups post disproportionately high scores on standardised tests.

High achievers

Indian American students, in particular, not only excel in standardised tests but also in just about anything academic. Many of them take 8-12 college-level Advanced Placement classes when still in high school. They routinely win spelling bees, geography bees, debate, science and robotic competitions, and quiz bowls. Many make it to state and even national contests.

But assessing Indian American student performance only through the lens of nerdy academics is inherently unfair to them. Many high-school students of Indian origin, whom I meet regularly as part of our counselling practice, stand tall as an inspiration, serving the community and honing their interests. They are remarkable in their commitment, passion and work ethic to do what they do outside of school.

One girl, Abirami Elangovan, born and raised in Detroit, reluctantly moved with her family to Chennai for her ninth grade. The Chennai school would only admit her if she agreed to learn Tamil, a language alien to her although spoken by her parents. She put in nearly 4 hours of effort each day for nearly one-and-a-half years, after school, using a private tutor who could barely understand her American-accented English, mastered the language enough to read poetry and classics in Tamil, and passed the 10th boards. Now she has fallen in love with the language and wants to start a Tamil club when she attends college back in the US. How brilliant!

Acing it in arts and sciences

Karvi Bhatnagar, a Coppell, TX student, born and raised in Nebraska to a North Indian family, happened to take up Bharatanatyam dance classes on her mother’s whim when she was six years old. The family spoke no South Indian language and didn’t have a strong appreciation of the culture or legacy of the art form. Yet, she stayed with this teacher for nearly 10 years and went to Delhi for her Arangetram. When the family approached Doordarshan to cover a short clip for the station’s weekly culture program, Doordarshan was so impressed with the girl’s skills that they covered the event live, broadcasting it to the entire country.

Last week I met Adith Gangalakunta, who is at Jasper High School, in Plano, Texas. When he was in the 8th grade, he learned about Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone in the human body that helps people sleep better. Intrigued by its properties, he tried to research if it can be an effective blocker of UV radiation. A professor at a university 300 miles away, a Melatonin expert, began to mentor him by email. The two communicated for over three months while Adith conducted his research, which he used to compete at the Regional Science Fair in Dallas.

Now, Adith is in the 9th grade. Along with a classmate, he is trying to run simulations to see if they can come up with an efficient inhibitor of Melanoma, a form of skin cancer that arises when pigment-producing cells mutate and become cancerous. To simulate the drug’s effects, they contacted a company that makes a tool used for interactive, visual compound evolution, and were able to get a trial licence to do their research. Later this month, Adith, who has won several science fair contests, will present his findings at the Texas State Science Fair at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Socially relevant innovation

Another genius-in-the-making is Ishaan Javali, from Murphy, TX. When in the 8th grade, he created an Android app which alerts those who are hard-of-hearing when a fire alarm goes off. His app detects the alarm and vibrates the user’s phone violently and flashes lights on the phone on and off, indicating to the user that the alarm has just activated. He shared the third prize for 8th-grade innovations at the Science fair, which means that there were two other inventions which were even more innovative. (I’m guessing those too were also Asian American!)

Now in the 9th grade, Ishaan has been independently working on a system of three Android apps for Alzheimer’s/dementia patients. He demonstrated his app and I was blown away by its design, simplicity, and features. Ishaan told me that it contains 25,000 lines of code in Java, C#, and Python - all self-taught outside of a one-week primer he took in a coding class. Yes, Ishaan is just in the 9th grade.

The app assumes that a visitor intends to call on an Alzheimer patient who has a caregiver in attendance, such as at a hospital. The visitor logs in to the central system at the front door using facial recognition or a traditional username and password. Once the visitor’s profile details are entered, the caregiver has the authority to grant a visit. Should the visit be granted, the patient can review the visitor’s profile, repeatedly if necessary, so that the visit is pleasant. Alzheimer patients, after all, suffer from memory loss and a decline in cognitive abilities. This app allows them to better understand who is visiting them. The caregiver’s version has additional features, such as analyze the patient’s emotions using facial recognition, track the patient using GPS if the patient wanders, and view a list of events that have taken place. Ishaan plans to release this app on Google Play this summer.

Adapting, working harder

I have been privileged to mentor other outstanding achievers: Pranav Sastry, a 12th grade student who also pursued Taekwondo for 10 years and won the prestigious Eagle Scout badge; Utkarsh Nigam, a student who was uprooted from 8th-grade-life in Bengaluru to migrate to the US and has competed in university-level computer hackathon competitions; and a 9th grade student, who requested that he not be named, who has created an Android app to help better report vitals to medical professionals, winning first prize in the Dallas Science Fair.

These are extraordinary individuals and, while they do what they do because they like the challenge, the harsh truth also is that they do so because they feel that they have to differentiate themselves from the competition. Top US colleges are known to artificially limit access to Asian Americans arguing that these students are already over-represented compared to their populations: Asian Americans constitute about 4 per cent of the US population but nearly 25 per cent of the first-year class at elite colleges.

The intense contest, however, has made standing out even more difficult. One study showed that Asian American students have to score 150 points more on the SAT simply to compete with students from other demographic groups. It is this narrative that is now the thrust of a closely-watched lawsuit against Harvard University, a case brought by Asian Americans and joined at the hip by the US Department of Justice. The outcome of the case could have ramifications nationwide about admissions to selective colleges.

In the meantime, as more elite institutions consider going test-optional and relying exclusively on human interest stories of applicants to determine their potential and college readiness, Indian American students are beginning to excel here too. Not only are their accomplishments inspirational, but their attitudes are too: If the rules change, no problem; we will simply adapt and work harder.

Published on March 12, 2019

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