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Leading Change and Inspiring Minds: A Journey of Reflection and Growth

In this candid conversation, Karan Bhola, the Director of the Young India Fellowship, shares learnings, challenges, and future aspirations for the flagship programme of Ashoka University

Saman Waheed

10 August, 2023 | 6m read

Karan Bhola is the Director of the Young India Fellowship (YIF) at Ashoka University. He previously led YIF outreach and admissions and was the founding President of Ashoka University’s Alumni Association. Besides being a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University, Karan is also an alumnus of Harvard University, where he pursued a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration as a Fulbright Scholar.

In a recent interview, he takes us through his homecoming trajectory–from a Young India Fellow to leading the programme as its Director. He recounts how his time at Ashoka and Harvard has shaped him and how he envisions the future of the Fellowship to look like.

Now that the first year of the Fellowship with you as the Director has successfully concluded, what have been some key takeaways/learnings during this time? And is there something that you would have done differently?

I am still honestly reflecting on the year that has gone by. What I can definitely say at the moment is that every day has been a learning experience and a novel one at that. It has been a year of assimilating all of that wisdom, both from the team and the Fellows. Over several years, Dean Brar has set systems and structures in a way that helped me ease into the role quite comfortably.

There has been one important affirmation–that it is crucial to centre things around the Fellows. The Fellowship is the Fellows, and we have to be reflective of it in design, thought and action. Given that Fellows play a critical role in each other’s journey of learning and discovery, it becomes imperative that the cohort be diverse on various counts. Importantly, every single person who is involved with the programme—be it the Fellows, the Team, or friends, has something to offer. So, it becomes all the more important for me to have an ear to the ground, to see how we could synergise each other’s strengths for the community as a whole. I engaged closely with Fellows in the past year via office hours and over smaller group meals, which was one of the most fulfilling aspects of my first year.

We have also leveraged the integrated Team YIF set-up to be even more data-driven in our approach. An example of this is curating the ELM (Experiential Learning Module) projects after we have a primary understanding of the cohort’s interests through admissions. It is critical to hold the lens of equity and inclusion, right from application review until graduation.

The team is conscious and aligned on the same, which has helped us progress in that direction with more scholarships and the introduction of exceptional aid for the 2024 cohort.

Overall, I am excited about the possibilities that the integration of Team YIF (i.e. programme, outreach and admissions as one unit) would offer in the times to come.

Did your experience as a Young India Fellow and then consecutively, the Director of Outreach and Admissions for the programme prepare you for your current role? How so?

Definitely. Being a Young India Fellow, you know that Fellows are the Fellowship. They quite organically tend to take ownership of the Fellowship. I have always had that feeling of responsibility towards the YIF. While I do run the risk of being someone who is romanticising an experience from 10 years ago when the Ashoka campus did not even exist, it allows me to be more empathetic and listen intently with care. In situations where we face an impasse or when Fellows talk to me and the Team my experiences have been quite helpful, despite their situatedness. Furthermore, my experiences as a Teaching Assistant and my longstanding association with the Alumni Association have enabled me to empathetically look at the evolution of the YIF experience.

What I could achieve in the Outreach and Admissions team had a lot to do with the fact that I had been at the YIF before. Most of what we did was possible due to the support of the Fellows and the alumni community. Our work with a batch in many ways ended once we enrolled or onboarded them. But now, I have the privilege of engaging with the cohort throughout the year.

So, a lot of the qualitative and quantitative insights that we had at admissions, I now see them play out during the Fellowship. It is a beautiful full circle and I got to experience it for the first time this year. It also reaffirmed our conviction in our decision-making to a large extent but also made us realise that we cannot anticipate everything. Many people showed up in ways we never could have even conceived while we were admitting them, and in more cases than not, it was a very pleasant and heartening surprise.

How did your time at Harvard where you explored innovative education modules help you in reaffirming that you wanted to work in the higher education sector?

Even before I went to Harvard, I knew that I wanted to commit myself to transforming higher education in India. This is why I chose to do such a specialised programme in higher education, administration, governance and policy. Given that I already went in with that view, my time there helped me contrast the American education system with the Indian education system. A lot of my academic engagement ended up having a comparative lens, whether it was higher education at large or different aspects of it—governance, student identity development, philosophy of education, curriculum design, diversity, equity and inclusion, and more. I realised that a sense of belonging is perhaps the most important feeling that an individual could have, and we must constantly think about ways to create a more enriching and supportive environment for people to safely develop that. It has been almost four years since I have been back at Ashoka and that learning is now an integral part of how I function.

I have had a keen interest in understanding innovative models to address issues of equity and inclusion. This reminds me of Professor Anthony Abraham Jack, who wrote The Privileged Poor. One of the things he notes is that mere access is not inclusion. Providing need-based aid is only the first step in providing access, and is not an end in itself. There are several barriers to socialisation and engagement once students are on campus, especially for learners who come from historically disadvantaged communities. While there is a lot that peers naturally do to support each other, it is also our responsibility as an administrative group to enable that for them. One example of this is a financial outlay—a monthly stipend along with financial aid for a few students.

This has now been implemented for the first time for the Class of 2024, as I mentioned earlier. Another important aspect is how sensitised community members are towards each other and how it is ideal for people with actual lived experiences to address issues of belonging and we need to be mindful allies in enabling that.

With the educational landscape being in a constant state of flux and multiple courses/fellowships now existing in the field of liberal arts, how do you think that the Young India Fellowship can keep itself relevant?

It can be argued that YIF has been a pioneering force in Indian Higher Education, and different aspects of it have been emulated. Since YIF was launched, several Fellowships and one-year postgraduate programmes have started, which I would say is important and much needed in the Indian context. YIF has never had a focus on one particular domain. It pushes us to think across disciplines in whatever we do. At the YIF, Fellows can study art, astrophysics, philosophy, literature and behavioural science, all at the same time. That is still rare in Indian Higher Education.

YIF has a brief but strong 12-year alumni legacy, and I truly believe that the answer to most questions can be found within the community. Finally, YIF is the flagship of a multidisciplinary teaching and research institution, which opens up many other pathways of possibility. That is what sets us apart from most other programmes.

Our mission, ‘to groom socially conscious change-makers and leaders for the 21st century’, is fairly timeless. As Dean Brar has often said, and I paraphrase—even though the specifics of the fellowship keep changing, we have always strived to remain topical and relevant—whether it is through changes in coursework, a greater emphasis on critical writing or structuring the ELM in a way that is beneficial for a larger group of people. We have always wanted to be a programme that has something for everyone. The opportunity in front of us is to constantly push ourselves to continue staying ahead of the times. While this could mean many things, two thoughts (not necessarily my own) worth pondering over, keeping the mission at the core, are: how we can support and mentor Fellows as they work collaboratively to address complex problem statements and how we can make our existing coursework and opportunities for perspective-taking more intersectional so that more Fellows derive greater meaning? Deliberation on questions like these, in collaboration with key stakeholders of the YIF, will help us move into new dimensions.

What are some of your plans for the Fellowship?

I think the Fellowship continues to write itself, given that it is feedback driven and co-owned by so many stakeholders! There are however three elements that I can expand on briefly—investing in Fellows’ success, integrating with the larger institution, and intake. First, we as an institution can collectively support Fellows in manifesting their visions of success during and beyond the year on campus. By that, I do not just mean enabling resources on campus, or a good placement or admission at a top University. Success is atypical and may look different for different people. It may not always be tangible which is fine. I look forward to us all coming together as enablers for Fellows. We do a good job at that, but there is always room to raise the bar.

The second is integration with the larger ecosystem. Several Student Life programmes continue to be a great way for Fellows and other students to build friendships, learning circles and support systems outside of YIF, and I am hopeful that these can be leveraged further. We piloted a few programme initiatives last year and are carrying them forward—cross-listed coursework for credit across different Centres (Centre for Entrepreneurship and Ashoka Centre for Well-Being) as envisioned by Dean Brar, along with The Crossover Series and Alumni-in-Residence. The latter two are generally open to all Ashokans, and many sessions have had good participation outside of the YIF. Additionally, a lot more Ashoka faculty are now engaging with the YIF through their courses and even as members of the Chancellor’s Merit Scholarship selection panel. We are also bringing in ELM projects with several Ashoka Centres that are outward facing and (are poised to) do cutting-edge research.

Finally, intake. There are several changes that have happened recently – class size back to around 100, removal of the age limit to apply, and the introduction of the Chancellor’s Merit Scholarship (12 awardees in the 2024 cohort). We are starting to see a shift in the demographic split of the batch in terms of age and the lived, academic and professional experiences they represent. I am excited to see how this unfolds!

As YIF grows from strength to strength, we want it to be an accessible and equitable platform and remain the first choice for global changemakers to build on their journey.

(Saman Waheed is currently an Assistant Manager at the Office of PR & Communications, Ashoka University. She is a former Young India Fellow from the batch of 2022)

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