‘No one in my village in India knows what MIT is’.
I recognized Ishwar instantly from the Pestalozzi hoodie he was wearing. We met at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, where he received his undergraduate degree and is currently pursuing PhD in Biological Engineering. His PhD project looks deeply into how environmental pollutants might be causing cancer and their effects on human body. He hopes that his research will help inform people if they are at increased risk of developing chronic diseases after exposure to pollutants. He is also looking into discovering new drug targets based on the outcome of his findings.
Ishwar comes from the small rural village of Aksapur in the Chandrapur district in India, where there are very limited educational opportunities. His parents did not go to school, but they could see the value in education and when an English school opened nearby to their home, Ishwar was enrolled for two years in their kindergarten programme. After seeing how much he enjoyed learning and that he was good at studies, they decided to send him to a school 10km away from the village to allow him to continue his education.
It was here that Ishwar heard about Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV), a highly selective government schooling system in India. After five years of primary schooling, he was put forward for the entrance exam to JNV, where a few thousand students apply and only eighty are selected. He gained admission into sixth grade with a full scholarship.
In 2010, whilst studying at JNV, Ishwar was further recognized for his academic achievements and received financial support to continue his studies. He was put forward for the Pestalozzi scholarship and selected alongside two other Indian students.
Whilst at Pestalozzi, Ishwar took part in Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, helped in the Pestalozzi garden, lead the running club for Hastings Half Marathon and volunteered at a local organic soap company. He studied biology, chemistry and mathematics under the two year international baccalaureate programme. With Pestalozzi’s support, he applied to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was accepted, again being offered a full scholarship place after competing against thousands of other applicants. It was here at MIT that he would build a home over the next eight years, studying under a highly rigorous academic programme and also playing cricket, badminton and helping to organise student sporting events.
One of the things that amazed me the most about Ishwar’s story was that he currently attends one of the greatest universities in the world and yet ironically, nobody in his home community in India has ever heard of it. His consistent ability to be selected for some of the most highly competitive programmes at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions would usually have amazed me, but after spending some time getting to know him, it was very clear to me how he had made it this far.
Ishwar shared with me some of the ways in which Pestalozzi had been most valuable in his life.
‘Whatever I have right now is down to Pestalozzi in a way. Had I not received that scholarship, I never imagined I’d be studying outside of India. It’s hard to imagine life if it wasn’t for Pestalozzi. I don’t think my PhD would have been possible. It had a domino impact in terms of my education. Education is a path to bring you out of poverty. I’ve now been able to help my family to be less dependent on agriculture. As well as this, my niece and nephew are being encouraged to understand the value of education. From time to time I think about the place I’ve come from in India and where I am now. Connecting those two is a bit difficult, sometimes it’s hard to imagine how they are even connected at all, but it was because of Pestalozzi. I feel so lucky to be here.’
In 2011 during the summer break, Ishwar returned to India to volunteer in his village, where he mentored students in primary schools and spoke with them about the importance of education.
He says his favourite Pestalozzi memories were of spending time in the English countryside, which must seem far away now from where he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In the future, Ishwar wants to work in an academic setting, where he can teach and conduct research to better understand human diseases. He hopes that his educational trajectory will inspire other children in his village to have successful careers. In the meantime, he is committed to mentor students and facilitate opportunities that will promote educational development in his village.
Ishwar was one of the most sincere, good-natured and humble people I encountered whilst in Boston, and with such an incredible academic track record and an even lovelier personality, I am certain we will hear of many more successes from him over the next few years and beyond.