Rupesh Jhabak, 2013 graduate of the Young India Fellowship
Photo by YIF

The Young India Fellowship (YIF) is a highly competitive program for emerging young leaders from India to earn a post-graduate diploma endorsed by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Science and the International Foundation for Research & Education. Each year, more than 100 applicants are handpicked for the fellowship and provided the opportunity to be taught and mentored by eminent scholars and leaders from across the globe. The program’s mission is to create socially conscious leaders by exposing fellows to courses that will broaden their perspective and enhance their leadership skills. In addition to academic courses, the fellowship also includes an 8-month experiential component where fellows execute long-term projects for companies, NGOs and other organizations. The Young India Fellowship based in New Delhi, India, covers, in full or in part, tuition, board and lodging.

Rupesh Jhabak had the opportunity to experience the Young India Fellowship this past year. Rupesh demonstrated to the selection committee his capacity to integrate diverse interests and become a change agent in India. We asked Rupesh more about his experience and his tips for other aspiring fellows.

1.What inspired you to apply for the Young India Fellowship?

My interest in and my subsequent admission to the Young India Fellowship is an extended story about self-awareness and my growing interest in interdisciplinary studies. At school, I was a student of the sciences, steered unsuspectingly towards an engineering degree. It was what most of the world around me was doing. My peers – and we were so young – had grown up in a place where school curriculums had an almost teleological insistence that their students will eventually enter colleges to be engineers, doctors, lawyers or economists. Although these are noble professions, I was becoming increasingly interested in the arts. I read copiously through my last four years at school. During my last year, I entered a national story-writing competition and my entry was selected out of more than a million entries. Once I was published, my parents were more accommodating of the idea that I can take up literature at university. I was very fortunate to have gotten admission in my undergraduate university. It was here that my recognition of the interconnectedness between disciplines took root. I studied world literature, linguistics, phonology, cinema, French, cultural and literary theory. It was amazing to discover how much in common these subjects had. I took up philosophy and art history as well. I met many interesting people and I had freedom. The three years at university were very important in establishing my love for interdisciplinary studies.

The Young India Fellowship, then, was an attractive program to be part of. Most universities and colleges in India are specializing schools and do not give attention to a more rounded and interdisciplinary education. The fellowship promised a year of extensive engagement with subjects from humanities, the arts and in entrepreneurship and leadership skills. I had enjoyed my time at the university but was aware that because I was studying literature and theory, I was disconnected from important areas of studies like economics, politics, global affairs, mathematics and law. The fellowship addressed that by its modules on each of these subjects taught by some of the best faculty around the world. I was aware of my limitations as a twenty year-old that to be able to study and engage with such diverse disciplines would take years and a lot of hard work. My decision to apply for the fellowship depended a lot on the expectation that it would help me find direction and that it would be a suitable starting point to learn new subjects. It also allowed space for experimentation and promised an interesting and educative year.

2. What have been some of the most eye-opening moments during your fellowship?

Academically, the fellowship was rigourous and exciting. The courses offered room for creativity and expression. I wrote papers on surveillance technology in urban spaces; the impact of fast-moving consumer goods on Indian lifestyle; a historical and contemporary role of Gandhi in social violence; business strategies for a healthcare initiative; historical distance and problems of queer theory’s insights into Shakespeare. I made presentations about Indian art markets, anti-terrorism law and environmental ethics. I’ve discovered a style of painting that I’ve been experimenting with over the year. I worked for eight months with a Shakespeare scholar as a research assistant for her upcoming book. I made films, acted in plays, participated in a NGO and joined initiatives for social justice and women’s safety. I never thought I’d be able to do so many different things at the same time. It still makes me gasp in awe at the hundreds of papers and presentations that have been produced over the years by the fellowship and its contribution to collective learning and research. The professors, instructors and teachers were a source of constant inspiration and encouragement. I’ve been able to build a network of some brilliant mentors and advisors. We’ve painted with them, we’ve discussed statistics while playing football with them, and we’ve discussed social venture ideas over dinner. I have now become very interested in international affairs and global policy and I am looking forward to pursuing a Master’s degree in those subjects. I have to attribute this to the fellowship’s spectacular design. My vocabulary for adjectives is now more tired than my fingers are typing this.

I think the most valuable experience during the fellowship has been getting to know the 96 brilliant and talented colleagues. Every encounter, discussion and group project was an opportunity to learn something new. The fellowship selects people from various age groups, professions and educational backgrounds – it is almost impossible to imagine such diverse individuals in the same place, studying together and learning from one another. We had a doctor, an air-force pilot, an aspiring politician, a film-maker, a rocket scientist, a social worker, a global economist, an architect, a botanist, an urban space designer, a writer and an entrepreneur – each of them different and with exceptional stories to tell. I, with my modest literature degree, a book, and a few projects and student papers, was nervous about my place in this group. But the dynamic of the fellowship and the atmosphere of mutual learning was a fantastic setup and I am more than thankful to know the fellows and have so many lasting friendships.

3. What do you think made your fellowship application stand out?

An honest answer would be that I have no clue. I can describe the application process and interviews, which have an interesting story. The first phase was to fill out the application form on the fellowship website and answer five essay questions, which were much like a detailed cover letter and reasons for applying for the program. I believe that it was more about what I personally believed in than the essays I wrote, because eventually my perspective was expressed in them. Academic performance was not the sole criterion for a strong application. I had an eighty percent score at school and some A’s during the six semesters. These, however, were never discussed in the interview. There were successful applicants who were from relatively less reputed universities and rural areas. What I think was most important was one’s enthusiasm and motivations for a program like Young India Fellowship, and a resume that reflects that they’ve engaged in rigorous, interdisciplinary, academic and extracurricular work. A short telephone interview was conducted after the online application and then an in-person interview. I had three back to back interviews, one of them outside on a balcony over coffee. The interview themselves were unlike ones we hear about. I spent most of my time in one of the interview discussing my city and my parents – because the interviewer turned out to be from my hometown. In the other, I had a debate about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the controversy at the Jaipur Literature Festival. So, I cannot tell you what to expect at the interview, but to put your best foot forward, be honest, motivated and express an authentic interest in the education that Young India Fellowship Programme offers.

Rupesh Jhabak, age 22, is a literature and cultural studies graduate from The EFL University Hyderabad. Rupesh completed a liberal arts postgraduate diploma from Young India Fellowship Programme in New Delhi. His interests are in the field of world literature, cultural studies, international relations and popular culture. 

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved

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