Grad School is what you make of it!

It’s been a week of reflection – A luxury I couldn’t afford this semester. with seven courses and the amazing Dow project ensure that I have enough on my plate that I always work until I doze off – A phenomenon I didn’t experience since JEE days. While being able to benefit from multiple departments at Umich was one of the strong attractions to study public policy at Ford, at times trying to do everything can result in too much fatigue and little reflection. Last week, several prospective students were paired with current students to help them make decisions which can potentially a huge role in deciding their career. Or would it?

When I was preparing for IIT JEE, frequently one would be told, work as if your entire future depends on it. No doubt, we worked our ass off to make sure our parents dreams and our dreams come true. Today, having cleared that examination, I wonder what those childhood dreams really were? Did we even acquire any life skills to dream beyond the hallow of IIT or was IIT the magic word which when uttered would open doors without you ever having to actually use wand?

I look back and can easily see the latter wasn’t overhyped in how my career transitions were never questioned. How I was always given the benefit of doubt assuming that I knew better. It probably formed one of the biggest reasons why Members of Parliament with 30 years of experience to CEO’s who loved their companies more than their kids trusted me enough to work in the positions that I did. All of which being the reason why I am here at Ford School. I loved my dreams, but the 100,000$ scholarship went a long way in making those dreams come true. And I definitely have my alma matter to thank for that. In fact, statistically no matter what I do in life- I will never be in the top 0.2% ever again.

Going back to the question I started with – While, I could definitely see that undergrad shaped my life thus far to a large extent, would my grad degree have a similar impact?  Being a policy student I would always begin by defining impact. Here I imply it to mean – Would it help me find my life’s mission? Would it help me acquire the skills to find the life’s purpose? Basically the what and the how of things!

We all like to think we come to a grad school with a very specific purpose – For me, my experience in consulting had demonstrated that I had a flair for doing things which lied in the intersection of multiple disciplines (Ford school, is literally located between the law school and business school, talk about inter-disciplinary by location, huh?) Being a civil engineer by training, and having harbored a long standing desire to re-create Mohenjo Daro, I was naturally interested in urban policy. It was a truly interdisciplinary subject which needed looking into – Urban Governance, planning, financial management as well as an understanding of how do various utilities in a city operate?

Before coming in, I looked into faculty focusing on urban policy on Ford – It was a bit of a concern for me to see only 1 faculty listed under it. I was also based out in India, completely new to the American directness of ” When in doubt, Ask”. I secretly worried about it but knowing my ability to find opportunities the way I found “policy school” – I trusted the school and myself to enable me to find a way to study my research area. But, as luck would have it – I shouldn’t have discounted luck’s role in all of this.

By accident I decided to waive out of Micro A, an entire 3 credit gap needed to be filled by a course which I had no clue what I was gonna take. It was already 2 weeks into the session — So I would have missed 4 classes of any class that I wanted to take. I remembered an email – Which Pam had sent out some time ago on Comparative Property Rights in Various countries – The only reason I knew about property rights was because of my work in Kukatpally with Dr. Jayaprakash Narayanan and it looked like one of the more international classes in urban planning department (I had spoken to 2 urban planning professors over the summer and I couldn’t take any course because it didn’t have an international focus in their courses). So I go to check this class out – And the first class happens to be a debate on common property vs. Private property. I was intrigued by the format of the class and went on to discover our amazing professor Ana Paula. She and I used to end up discussing every reading inside the class and outside exchanging stories from our experiences in the field. We would geek out on academia.edu with every new paper that came out on slum redevelopment.  I approached every position paper with 50% reflection and 50% outside research – far more energy that I put in any of my Ford courses. But, well the other courses in Ford were statistics and Politics of Public Policy – Who am I kidding – This was the single most exciting thing going on in my life. Prof Ana Paula pushed me to present my work in the form of a paper and here was borne the first draft of the paper that I would later present in “Land & Poverty Conference” in World Bank.

Through the readings I started viewing Global South as having much of the same problems of weak local governance and strong community values (as opposed t individualism which is the dominant trait of the western civilization). It was around this time the BRICs were starting up, I kept dreaming about starting to work there and ensuring that models of development in these countries befit their culture and arent imposed from outside. This led to me applying to a field trip which went to study urban development in Brazil. The experience taught me the difference of

It was during one of the position papers that I was writing, that Rahul called me, I was discussing the paper with him where I had come to the conclusion that it’s essentially a combination of 2 factors that is preventing the 1.2 Billion people households living in slums to have a better life – Time and money. Slum dwellers don’t have the luxury of checking into alternate housing arrangements for months while the government/ private entity rebuilds that community and secondly they cannot pay for the cost of redevelopment though their limited incomes. In my research I had come across many interventions which spoke of low cost houses but none which spoke of reducing the time of construction. And I could see how lengthy time of construction (5-6 years) was the single biggest fear of slum dwellers which made them not want to relocate. While talking I remembered, one about the pre cast method of construction which can reduce the time of construction from years to mere days from my civil engineering days. I got super excited about the idea of using that technology for creating a combination of rental and ownership dwelling units, using FAR as incentives for private developers. This idea became my caffeine for the next 8 months as I got the Dow Fellowship, pitched the idea, formed a group of 6 exceptional students all bringing rich and diverse talents, all of whom I feel incredibly proud working with, worked alongside Prof Khanna’s incredible ideas and am now along with Yash am taking my entire team to India for our project.

As the semester draws to an end, I look back and think of how that one waiver exam and that one class changed how my grad school turned out to be. How it made me so passionate about an issue that making the most of the opportunities that lay in front of me didn’t need pushing. Today, as I see the wonderful blog of Sfurti taking shape, I cannot thank the stars enough for this journey. The first year taught me the “what” I love part – I hope the final year before graduation I can make sense of the “how” part.

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