Recently, in reaction to an undemocratically-decided and regressive draft hostel manual, the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were forced to take to the streets to voice their protest, the goal being to maintain the ethos of the central university of providing affordable education to all.
Even as the protesting students faced a mountain of abuse on social media and TV channels, many gurus took to selling a ‘solution’ – that JNU subsidise education only for the ‘poor’. This suggestion resonates with recommendations made by the high-level committee set up by the administration.
It is this ‘solution’ that I would like to address here by sharing my JNU story. Through it, I hope to shed light on how affordable higher education can play a massive role in empowering people from various cross-sections of society.
I was born to an upper-class, English-speaking Brahmin family and both my parents held government jobs. My only brother, like most of the boys from our family, went abroad to get a masters in information technology only to settle there for good.
I finished my bachelor’s degree in the field my parents had chosen for me. When I expressed a desire to study more, my parents said that they wanted to get me married.
But perhaps I was born to belong to the halls of JNU; I resisted and eventually they let me pursue a master’s degree – reluctantly or wholeheartedly, I’m still not sure. But I do know they were not keen on my going to Mumbai to study because I was only 23 (yes, that’s how old you usually are while studying medicine).
When I graduated at the age of 25, I was offered a job in a technical support unit of the health ministry. My family couldn’t have been prouder – the long road had been worth it after all.
This is usually where the ‘happily ever after’ cliche kicks in, but I dropped the unpleasant bomb that I wasn’t going to take the job and was instead going to study further.
This time, I was told, “Do whatever you like, but do it after you get married!”
I agreed, decided to take up the job for a while and started working in Delhi only to fall in love with a colleague. I may not call it luck exactly – but perhaps it was – my husband is a feminist and more than happy to help me chase my dreams. He offered to bear the load of being the earner while I dove into getting a PhD, so after a few more months of working and saving money, I started the application process.
Also read: JNU: The Emotional Cost of Protesting
Cracking the JNU entrance exam was a priority – and when I got first rank, I was on top of the world.
But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Though my family is not poor by any means, everyone was apprehensive about me surviving without a regular salary. I was also afraid that my new family would not be very taken in by the idea of me putting aside a well-paying job to study for five years at the age of 28.
When I learnt about JNU’s tuition and hostel fees, I immediately knew I that could quit my job and finally be on exactly the road I had hoped to be on for so long.
I can’t quite forget the feeling, it felt like I no longer needed someone to tell me: ‘Ja Simran, ja jee le apni zindagi.’
Since that moment, I’ve stopped looking for permission for something as basic as wanting to study more. It may sound rebellious to you, but to me, it felt nothing short of liberation.
I finally started my MPhil/PhD at 28. For the first time in my life, an average student topped the course work.
My intention here is to pass on the message of how JNU empowered me to be my own person. The university has helped shape me in more ways that one, my time there has made me far aware of my privileges and my responsibilities. The university is a great leveller, people from all backgrounds eat, live and study together.
When it comes to any even halfway decent story, there’s usually a twist, so here’s mine: I could not finish my PhD in time. That’s because I gave birth to two kids in between and decided to dedicate two years of my life completely to them.
I had turned 33, had two kids and still no PhD.
This narrative fits like a glove for what many have had to say about several students they love to call “aunties”.
But I’m so proud of myself – I entered both higher education and motherhood by choice and gave my best to both. I took a break to be with kids and am now about to finish my PhD. This could only happen because JNU gave me the option to de-register and because my family had the means to sustain this break.
I’m sure this is not the reality for many women who drop out from higher education courses.
For anyone wondering what I am doing to contribute to the development of my country, I would like to tell that apart from working as a researcher, I lead the India chapter of an international initiative which is fighting to close the gender gap in global health leadership.
In all my endeavours toward this goal, I proudly quote JNU as an example of a progressive institution where parity isn’t just an afterthought.
Sumegha Asthana is a physician, health administrator and public health researcher by training and also the India lead for Women in Global Health (WGH). She is currently finishing a PhD at JNU.
Featured image credit: Reuters