Village school to IT campus

Shashi Ravichandran | Updated on March 12, 2012 Published on March 08, 2012

Future perfect: Some of the rural merit scholarship students of SSN College of Engineering, Chennai, who have received job offers through campus recruitment. - Photo: Shashi Ravichandran.

First-generation learners turn engineers under a rural scholarship programme at a Chennai college, and find placements in leading companies.

They walked into the room one after another — Divya, Krithika, Sivapathy, Bhuvaneshwaran and Paneerselvam — and they had two things in common: a smile stretching from ear to ear, and bristling excitement that they tried unsuccessfully to keep under check. All five, final-year students at Chennai's SSN College of Engineering, had just emerged from campus interviews with job offers from leading companies such as Infosys, Wipro, HCL, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Sanmar Engineering and Flextronics. So what's special about this scenario, played out annually across campuses, you might ask. The five of them, along with 14 other students in their college, are first-generation learners emerging out of rural Government high schools. They are the first batch of resident rural merit scholarship holders selected by the college under a unique programme launched four years ago.

Coming from schools that offer the barest minimum in facilities or faculty, many of them juggled studies with a job — be it rag picking, goat herding, lorry cleaning or coolie work — to supplement their family income. Some even arrived barefoot for their college admission interview.

The faculty encouraged and motivated the students, helping them gain confidence.

Divya, the daughter of an auto driver from Thiruvallur, recalls how scared she felt when she first joined SSN. “Everyone was speaking in English; I felt embarrassed and self-conscious, and was reluctant to speak up even when I did not understand something in class. But today I am confident about myself and very comfortable with English.”

Divya has an offer from Cognizant and looks forward to taking up her first job. “I want to be creative about finding solutions and stand out as a team player,” she says.

The rural scholarship programme was established by Shiv Nadar, founder of HCL and the Shiv Nadar Foundation. It was conceived by Kala Vijayakumar, President of SSN Institutions (an initiative of SNF), in keeping with Nadar's vision of ‘levelling the playing field across all economic strata' through equal opportunity in education. The scholarship programme aimed to reach out each year to 20 economically disadvantaged children from rural government schools through a merit-based selection process (the number of scholarships has gradually been increased to 25). The objective was to train and mainstream them to lead productive and socially responsible lives. But this proved easier said than done.

SSN secured a list of 800-plus government schools in rural areas from the Directorate of School Education in Tamil Nadu. The college wrote to all of them about the scholarship scheme, asking for names of toppers in the Maths/ Physics/ Chemistry stream. It heard back from less than 150. Of this pool, 20 were picked. The scholarship entitles them to free tuition, board and lodge.

The students were asked to join one month ahead of the regular stream to receive special coaching in English and social skills. Through newspapers and films, they were familiarised with urban lifestyles. They were taught conversation skills to enable them to interact confidently with peers.

Their mentor was Dr K. Kasthuri, Dean of PG Studies, who has taught in colleges for more than 45 years.

“We assigned one faculty member for every two students to follow their progress, encourage them and give personal attention… initially many of the children had trouble clearing their exams, but we did not give up on them and they caught up with the rest of the class within about eighteen months. They became so comfortable that soon some of them headed professional forums in their departments, and others shone as class toppers,” says Kasthuri.

Krithika, for instance, discovered she was good in oratorical competitions. “I was surprised at how well I did,” says this youngster from Karur.

On completion of the four-year course, the scholarship students are given fifteen days' training in personality development and soft skills, including how to face job interviews. Nine out of the first batch of 19 students have received not one, but two job offers from premier companies, with salaries averaging Rs 3 lakh and above.

“I am so excited by my transformation over these four years that I want to be a role model and help other children like me,” says Krithika, who is all set to soon join HCL.

Grit, determination… and graduation!

Sivapathy from Andimadam, in Tamil Nadu, is the son of a weaver who earns about Rs 1,100 a month. He was able to study up to Std XII after bagging the Government's talent test scholarship of Rs 1,000 a year. “I had no support, but I was determined to study hard and make a mark. I am very lucky I got into such a prestigious engineering college through the rural merit scholarship programme,” he says.

Currently the Student Secretary of the college's IEEE chapter, he received two job offers and decided to join HCL. His salary will make a major difference to his family and he can pay for his sister's education too. “I would like to give back to society by helping other children like me who lack resources to study,” he says, adding that he wishes to contribute to the SSN Trust for rural students. His heart is equally set on getting an MBA after some years of work.

Bhuvaneshwaran from Gobichettypalayam will soon join Infosys. With a love for research, he wants to become a professor after getting his PhD. He is the first graduate in his family and wishes to be a role model for first-generation learners like him.

Paneerselvam from Vizhupuram is the first graduate in his entire village. “I am very excited. I have made it to this point only because of SSN, and especially because of our Dean. He provided great inspiration and encouragement for me. He helped me improve my communication skills and build confidence,” he says.

In love with what he is currently working on in college — a project in cloud computing — he wants to become a domain specialist in that area. “My entire village looks at me differently now,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

In fact, he has motivated a childhood friend to gain admission to SSN through the same scholarship programme. After he takes up his job at Wipro, Paneerselvam hopes to send money home to his family and later pursue an M.Tech degree.

Published on March 08, 2012
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