Every May I interview about forty college applicants to Azim Premji University’s undergraduate program. My colleagues do the same. The students I meet come from all parts of the country and from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They have passed an academic baseline test and during the interview, my colleagues and I spend time trying to assess their understanding of a subject. But, just as importantly, we try to assess their sense of themselves and their suitability for our programme.

It’s hard to explain how delicate those thirty minutes can often be, and how instructive they are for me. This moment in their lives is a liminal stage and often one in which you get to see, however briefly, the first point at which students are really trying to ‘meet life’. For the last decade or so of their lives they have been busy getting a schooling. More recently they have also been experiencing the first inchoate glimpses of selfhood that sets in during adolescence. And when they come to the interview it is often the first time they are presenting themselves, as best as they can, to complete strangers.

Some are more prepared, have thought about themselves a little, and are more self-aware. While this doesn’t always correlate with socio-economic backgrounds, it is nevertheless true that the educational system that is more urban, more western-focused, more upper class, is also one that prepares students to think about themselves as autonomous subjects. They present themselves as people whose opinions, thoughts and inner impulses are to be valued. By contrast, those from less privileged backgrounds, when asked questions about themselves that are ‘outside the syllabus’, by and large speak less as individuals and more broadly about family or about socioeconomic issues. Additionally, it is often the case that their lives are more circumscribed, effortlessly more brutal, and the interview, therefore, much more consequential for their life chances.

A great deal of the time the answers from everyone, whatever their situation, are relatively formulaic. There is often this moment, which is both touching and somewhat filled with pathos, when students reach into their bags to show us their certificates (Model UN, Art class, Kung Fu, Drawing competition and so on), as evidence of some sort of well roundedness. I’m always somewhat torn at that point. At one level, it is completely irrelevant to me and to the process of selecting the candidates. It is also mildly dispiriting to feel that there is a ‘burden of proof ’ in this certification. But at the same time, it is also something that students cling to as validation of their efforts to be noticed outside the system. So, I’m not sure whether to take them and murmur my appreciation, or to simply ask them to put it back.

I’ve tried to see if those who are from alternative school backgrounds are different. The answer is, I suppose, somewhat. While some of the students who come to us from these places are truly exceptional in their sense of self-reflectiveness, a majority are much like the products of any other elite schooling—capable, articulate, confident, but also cocksure, self-involved as well as sheltered. The most common answer, when asked about their schooling, is that it ‘didn’t involve competition’, but not much more.

Given that I too have had a similar background and schooling experience, I sometimes think back to myself at seventeen and eighteen and wonder how I would do in these interviews. It’s hard to know. What would I have answered to the question I sometimes ask, “Tell me about yourself ”. What do I remember of myself at that stage? Nothing too endearing—a morass of self-importance and a certain turgidity, coming from a combination of social and psychological signals that were all received in a haze. The release and desire and promise of just post-liberalization India overlaid with the self-restraint and austerity of the adults around me. A difficulty in being non-reactive. A lack of kindness towards the world. A need to be liked. Also, I suppose, some confidence, much curiosity, boundless enthusiasm for learning, a sense of affection for people. How might I have been able to express anything of that sort in thirty minutes? Not well, I would guess.

So where does this leave me now, being at the other end of the process? It makes me profoundly aware that the process of education doesn’t somehow change in university. Eighteen, at least in the Indian context, is still adolescence. College is a bridge, not just a destination that one comes to fully formed. The idea that college is about freedom and self-discovery— understood as an unfolding of identity in an environment without a formal structure and hierarchy—is profoundly false. This is not to patronize, but to recognize that if one is serious about the process of education, one cannot assume that somehow, magically, that the step to college will mean a phaseshift. If anything, it brings new challenges for the student that are just as hard to deal with as the adolescent years in school.

I think about those students who have already joined college and whose lives I’ve learned about in greater detail. I realize that there is truth to the notion that young people have it much harder these days. By the time they are eighteen, or certainly soon after, they are expected to have a much more developed sense of self, a certain urbane sensibility, a set of ‘positions’ about the world. Much of this is driven by social media and I’ve seen first-hand how Twitter, for example, makes people perform their self-hood on a 24/7 basis. And given how mercilessly this sense of self is created and torn apart when one is young, it is often a torture for all. In addition, with an everpresent media dramatizing events, heightening anxieties and creating a cycle of addiction to sensation, the unmitigated horror of our world is too much with them. It is inescapable.

Later, on entering college, students are forced to be in a milieu that is both intellectually and emotionally demanding. At a residential university, students are forced to confront the process of living together with people very different from themselves, with a variety of socio-political backgrounds, interests, impulses and instincts that can be quite alien. It is for many a disconcerting experience. Some of this occurs from the raw fact of socioeconomic distance—students from disadvantaged backgrounds feel intimidated, and more privileged students lack understanding. In some other ways the tensions are to do with a young person’s own identity as a ‘good student’, facing a set of academic challenges that they have not had to in the past. A third set of challenges is in the fact of having to relate beyond the classroom—the rough and tumble of a life of new friendships and interests. This often leads to continued anxiety and sometimes even breakdowns.

The challenge for us as educators of college-going students is therefore complex. We are committed to a different sort of education that aims at generating a particular sensibility of the world and themselves. While we recognize that this is a time to allow young people to learn and grow and experience in their own way, at the same time the journey, especially at this stage, can be fraught, self-destructive and cruel. Designing curricula and engagements with students is therefore a continuous and dialectic process.

The academic component is often the easier part, although this too has to be carefully designed. The much harder challenge is to get a group of young people, struggling to find ways to settle their raging impulses and anxieties, to work with others with very different backgrounds within a common, self-directed space. At the same time, to ensure that their education will allow students to develop some sensitivity to the world and evoke the desire to engage with it in a way that facilitates meaningful change.

As far as academics go, a few things have turned out to be important. The first is to have a group of people who are jointly committed to the engagement of students. One of the fortunes of being at a place in which there is such a commitment is that there is a willingness to think of the project as a collective endeavour. This is very different from an environment in which one is primarily compelled as an academic to first do one’s research at a high level and second to ensure that their subject is taught well to students. In an environment that we are intending to create, the success or failure of a student is seen, I believe correctly, as a joint process across faculty within a discipline, across disciplines and among non-teaching faculty as well.

At the outset, the challenge is to set up a curriculum that is relevant, challenging, coherent and rigorous, while being broad enough to speak to all the varied backgrounds in the classroom. This is easier said than done, and much attention is paid to doing so. As part of the process, we have discovered, at least in the Economics curriculum, that it requires constant discussion and tweaking between different courses to really have synergies that work. It also requires recognition of different motivations and capacities of students, and working with each on a more personalized level. This is often realized through a system of committed mentorship. What we have found is that this constant and continuous updating of strategies is essential to handling student difficulties.

In an environment of rigorous and demanding training, student distress takes on many forms—a sense of academic inadequacy, a fear of failure, a profound loss of motivation, an inability also perhaps to let go of habitual patterns of learning and being a student, an inability to learn differently. An eighteen-year-old comes with and builds on prior experiences of adolescence—the rewards and punishments of earlier forms of being and learning, as well as the expectations in the new environment. It can be quite daunting. Those who succeed better often have more initial resilience, a little less self-involvement, a willingness to be empathetic with others and a little more sense of their own role in the learning experience. We can in fact design curricula that inculcate some of these strengths and do so. Whether this is through field work, group work, or work that builds different skills than they have been used to deploying, such as perseverance. Much of the Economics curriculum, with which I am most closely acquainted, places a premium on rigour and real-world knowledge, which students come to appreciate over time.

But this is by far the easier part of curriculum design. The harder part is to plan and handle what might be thought of as the process of engagement with the emotional and psycho-social needs of students. At Azim Premji University we designed our undergraduate programs as compulsorily residential. This was deliberate as we wished to have a place where we could introduce students to, and support them in experiencing, just and caring relationships across traditional social barriers such as caste, religion and gender. The experience has been very difficult and charged. I can do no better than to quote one of my colleagues who has thought hard about the challenges in this context. He writes, in a longish email:

Since inception, some of us ... have argued that experiencing our curriculum in such a social context is a necessary condition for our programmes to contribute to social change. However, the pursuit of activity to create such an environment makes challenging psychological-emotional demands on both staff and students. Speaking from my own experiences, it requires sustained and self-reflexive, psychological-spiritual work—work for which I have needed both mentoring, and professional mental health support. This work on myself and my varied engagements with students have allowed me to understand that this is very challenging. We do not acknowledge this enough, in these terms. The social-political-educational work involved in building community on campus (indeed, any work to change society) requires all of us to face our deep-rooted vulnerabilities, fears, and grief. I am fairly certain that this reality lies at the heart of the ‘psychological disorders’, peer pressure, bullying, substance abuse, sexual harassment, feelings of exclusion, and experiences of betrayal that we encounter on campus. We need to acknowledge this more in these terms, and consciously work on it…. I wonder whether these need to be explicitly framed as necessary psychological-emotional work for social-political transformation (in addition to being talked about as issues of individual well-being, and organizational improvement).

The combination of these factors means that ‘meeting life’ at eighteen has many of the same features for all involved—both students and the faculty—who are part of the process at their own stages of life. Even with good planning and the best of intentions, students’ lives are demanding— ‘always on’ peer interactions, coping with academic expectations, issues of identity and its attendant anxieties, the first intimacies (both sexual and otherwise) and the challenges they inspire, the dysfunction of families (parental pressure) are all strongly present. Moreover, it is the last hurrah after which they are expected to fully enter the working world.

Can school education prepare students for this? Obviously, the experience at Azim Premji University will be different from other places where a much greater premium is placed on academic preparedness. But I’m increasingly convinced that the much greater challenges faced by young people have as much or more do with psycho-social factors as with academic ability. In fact, it is very hard to separate these in the course of a student’s life in college.

If an alternative education can do anything, perhaps it can work more deeply on these psycho-social factors as well. Maybe it is not just about ‘no competition’. Maybe it is not about certificates and extra curriculars. Maybe, it is in fact about facing the self and learning about it, being kind and empathetic to others and oneself as well as working hard at mastering learning. Maybe, it is about the ability to remain focused and resilient in the face of the swirling uncertainty of the world around oneself, and the ability to not take (relative) failure as the end of the road. And even if students cannot express all of this at eighteen, it is my hope that in their next meeting, in the next stage of their lives, they are well aware of these.