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Gaining Perspective: A Harvard Graduate’s Journey in Transforming Indian Higher Education

Karan Bhola, YIF alumnus and Harvard graduate, shares his journey from seeking direction to becoming a leader in innovative higher education administration in India

Karan Bhola, an alumnus of Young India Fellowship is a higher education institution-building professional, with experience across admissions, program management, outreach, communications, curriculum development and alumni relations.

Karan is presently the Director of the Young India Fellowship (YIF) at Ashoka University. He previously led YIF outreach and admissions, while supporting outreach for Ashoka’s graduate and doctoral programs. He was the founding President of the Ashoka University Alumni Association. Through 9.9 Education, he worked on a project to establish India’s first university for the transportation sector and projects in online and blended learning. He worked with Deutsche Bank before moving to the field of higher education.

Karan is an alumnus of Harvard University (where he pursued a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration as a Fulbright Scholar), Ashoka University (where he was a Young India Fellow), and Loyola College (where he received an undergraduate degree in Economics).

In conversation with Karan Bhola, who returned to Ashoka University as Director of the Young India Fellowship, as he reflects on his own experience as a Fellow.

Did you expect to be working at Ashoka when you were a Fellow yourself?

I came to the Young India Fellowship (YIF) seeking direction, fulfilment and a better understanding of myself—as a former economics graduate and banker with multiple interests. The Fellowship, amongst many things, taught me the value of asking the right questions. The confidence the Fellowship gave me to pursue anything I wanted was the pivotal point that eventually pushed me to work across several facets of higher education. Everything I pursued after the Fellowship was because I was curious and excited about it. Not because I thought it would add something to my résumé. But now when I look back, my work in admissions and outreach, my work with professors, and on coursework—the dots seem to be connecting.

Was it a conscious decision to stick to higher education?

There was no direction initially. But it so turned out retrospectively that I happened to be doing everything in higher education, more specifically experimenting with innovative models. I decided to pursue administration and governance in higher education. It was a clean slate and a very tough problem to solve. This allowed me to also be a ‘specialised generalist’. I was specialising in higher education but was a generalist to the extent that I could play different roles from different perspectives.

What was your biggest takeaway from Harvard?

I got some critical distance from both India and higher education during my course at Harvard. I read a fair bit on the history of Indian higher education, and gained a lot of comparative perspective. The overarching goal has been to make higher education administration aspirational as back, I was only 28. And it becomes difficult to be taken seriously in a nonstudent, non-faculty role. But there was a point of comfort, and it helped to have mentors within the institution and some of the core trustees.

It was fundamentally about putting my head down, knowing what the right thing to do was and ultimately letting the work speak for itself. In some sense, that journey of building credibility is happening. It is exhausting but it is equally exhilarating and gratifying.

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka

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