On Pi Day this year, which falls on March 14, seventeen-year-old Ayush Sharma let out a shriek that brought his mother running to him in alarm. Ayush was sitting in front of the computer and incomprehensibly screaming. You could hardly fault him.
The source of his excitement was the admission results posted on the website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commonly regarded as the world's foremost school to learn engineering. The Kanpur boy had just found out he had got in—with a full tuition waiver.
"I had heard about MIT when I was in class 7 or 8 when I would read about one or the other pathbreaking research their students or professors were doing in the international pages of the newspapers," Ayush said over the phone from his hometown. "I had never ever considered I would be applying there as it seemed so out of reach."
The son of a mechanic in the state public works department and a retired employee of the central reserve police force, Ayush will be the first of his family to enroll in a "proper" college, he said.
"None of my parents have been to a full degree college," he told HuffPost India. "My father has a diploma after which he started his job as a mechanic."
Journey To MIT
The path to MIT was not easy for Ayush. He came from a family of limited means where studying abroad was a distant dream. He was enrolled in the local Kendriya Vidyalaya (government-run school). Though his written English was fair, he had difficulty speaking and communicating in the language. He had no idea how applications to US schools worked.
In class 11, as all his classmates scrambled off to various coaching centres and engineering prep courses as soon school let out, Ayush resisted. "Most of these classes took away the excitement of science," he said. "I didn't want to do equations by rote learning."
He heard about Avanti, a social enterprise run by IIT alumni which relies on peer learning methods to give affordable coaching to students. "The method of teaching appealed to me," said Ayush.
"None of my parents have been to a full degree college," said Ayush.
Towards the end of class 11, with the help of Avanti’s foreign applications program leader, Taylor Gregoire-Wright, Ayush had applied for Yale's Global Scholars Program, a short summer course. Wright, a Yale graduate himself, was at first doubtful of the outcome.
“When I first assessed Ayush for our study abroad program, I was not sure he would be able to cope. His communication skills needed work and there was little precedent of middle-class Indian students qualifying for top US schools,” he said.
However, not only did Ayush qualify for the prestigious program, he received full tuition waiver from the Ivy League school as well. He still needed funds for his travel to the US. Through an amazing crowd-funding campaign, he raised the entire amount — $1,500 (90,000 INR) — in just six hours.
“Ayush returned from Yale completely transformed. He was more articulate, had a broader world view and was convinced that he wanted to go to MIT or another top US university for his undergraduate studies,” recalled Varun Varma, a University of Michigan alumnus and Avanti’s head of sales, who Ayush credits for his opportunity to study abroad. Mumbai-based admissions consultancy The Red Pen offered pro bono assistance with the process.
Ayush recognises changes in himself that he feels will carry him well through life. He said that he has become better at working with people, and can explain concepts and thoughts well, which were very useful during the Yale summer program and cemented it further. "I've also developed the ability to take on challenges and risks," he said. "Now I know I can do something which is not entirely familiar to me."
"Ayush returned from Yale completely transformed."
Though peer learning at Avanti and their support for his application and funding process have been key to Ayush's path to MIT, he said one of the personal obstacles he had to overcome was speaking English. "It was one thing that I really had to do on my own and no one could have taught me," he said. "There were few people among my Kanpur acquaintances who I could speak in English with, so I would end up talking to myself. Little by little, I improved."
Ayush's parents are delighted and proud of their son, but apprehensive too. "They are understandably worried about me — how would I live, how I would cope on my own in a new country, etc."
While he said his parents have been incredibly supportive, they were at sea on what exactly their son was attempting to do, while preparing for admission. "I was diverting time to something quite different than just IIT preparation," he said. "They were unfamiliar with what I was doing and were apprehensive about the entire process."
Yet, it was his father who took his son to Lucknow for his TOEFL examination, and then to Delhi for his SAT.
The Path Ahead
Now, Ayush is looking forward to exploring as much of MIT's offerings as he can. While he plans on broadly pursuing his interest in Physics, he is unwilling to start the program with definitive ideas in his head. "The best things that happen to me are the ones I least expect," he said, laughing. "I want to explore as much as I can before picking a major."
The MIT scholarship amounts to more than Rs1 crore over four years.
His long-term plans are to work on the education system of developing countries. This is partly from his own experience in India and the positive learning environment at Avanti, he said. "The level of science education in India is just not good enough," said the 17-year-old. "Many students don't really get to appreciate what science means."