South Asian students are known for their superior academic prowess, they are known for winning Spelling Bee Contests and scholarships. We are a very visible minority in all things academic, but
when it comes to volunteering, being active on campus and joining social organizations, South Asian students are conspicuous by their absence.
Recently I had an engaging conversation with Ashima Dhingra, a second-generation South Asian who works with Projects Abroad who run a Global Gap Volunteer Program for high school students. Ashima spent a gap year abroad where she met people from all walks of life, worked with the less fortunate and ended up learning more in a year than some of us do in a lifetime. But as far as South Asian youth go, she is the exception to the rule. She counsels young students and their parents about the gap year program, most of whom are Caucasian. The few South Asian parents who call in are more interested in programs that would help their children academically. The Caucasian and other parents tend to be more altruistically inclined and let their children choose programs where they will make the maximum impact on the lives of the unfortunate. More importantly, they want their children to feel fulfilled and do what will make them happy. But a South Asian student en route to medical school would typically seek out a medical internship or something related to healthcare. If it helps their career or helps get them into a good medical school, it’s a go, if not, they aren’t interested.
So naturally when Ashima Dhingra enrolled in a volunteer program not related to her career goal, other parents weren’t impressed. “I am lucky I had understanding parents who gave me the freedom to choose,” she says. Most other South Asian students weren’t that fortunate, their lives and choices were rigidly controlled by their parents.
Volunteer to make a difference
South Asian parents often tend to look at volunteer programs at schools as a waste of time. They are more likely to send their children to a math or robotic camp rather than spend a month or two in summer building homes in Ecuador for example.
I know a young South Asian student who lives on campus, he is very active on campus, is part of several groups and volunteers his time toward a bunch of activities. Despite South Asians being a large and very visible group at his school, the committees and volunteer groups are mostly made up of Caucasian students, this young man was often the only South Asian. He tried to get other South Asian students to play an active role on campus but they were reluctant to join as their parents warned them about ‘wasting time doing useless things’ that weren’t directly contributing to their academic performance.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Being part of volunteer groups, joining student councils and playing a role in community activities helps young people develop conversational and leadership skills. It takes a young person out of their comfort zone, forces them to interact and work harmoniously with a large group of people. They learn organizational and time management skills.
More is learnt outside the classroom
Last week I spent a day at Harvard University in Cambridge. I spoke to a young student working at a bookstore run by the students. According to him, the skills Harvard students learn outside the classroom are just as important to what is being taught inside. At Harvard, students are encouraged to pursue interests and other activities that will help make them well-rounded individuals with well-stocked minds.
The South Asian student who volunteered his time and talent on campus has built up a great network of friends, mentors and the contacts. Having known him in high school and periodically meeting with him over the last two years while at university, I have come to the conclusion that his swaggering confidence is a result of his engagement in so many activities outside of the classroom. He has never been without a flexible job. He has had four jobs, two of which were offered to him, the other two he got through word of mouth, from contacts he made while volunteering!
I have spoken to many South Asians who believe that our youth need to develop better leadership skills in order to play a larger role in politics, business and in the community. Building leadership and networking skills unfortunately cannot be learnt in a classroom. It comes from getting out there, talking to random strangers, being able to make small talk and to network relentlessly.
People skills are as important as academic qualifications
I have often met South Asians who complain that despite all their academic degrees, they haven’t advanced to the top at their companies and that their bosses who happen to be Caucasian are less qualified than them. What often makes these Caucasian men and women management material isn’t their degrees but their people skills and the ability to schmooze. They can dazzle and impress people by their conversational skills and confidence despite knowing little or nothing. That in itself is a life skill worth learning.
At job interviews managers are often looking for people skills not just academic qualifications. Students who’ve traveled, volunteered and have been socially engaged on and off campus are often the ones who come across as more interesting. Hiring managers are more likely to ask questions to a recently graduated student about his or her experience volunteering their skills to help disadvantaged youth in Cape Town, South Africa or their environmental activism than talking about how they made it to the top of their class. If a job posting has fifty applicants with similar degrees, often the one who will likely get that job has to have something more to offer or talk about.
Often taking a gap year is all about closing or narrowing those gaps in one’s education.