Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Thursday, 26 April 2012

Getting in from abroad

Published in the Daily Princetonian on April 26, 2012.

For many years, students at my high school have been puzzled by their low rate of admission into top U.S. schools. On academic and extracurricular grounds the students are on par with other applicants, so the lack of success with American college applications does not add up. This winter I got the chance to work at my school’s counseling office. Seizing this opportunity, I went back to figure out an explanation. Of course I am no admission officer, and I am no college counselor. I looked at the situation only as a former student and as someone trying to understand the dynamics underlying international admissions to top U.S. schools.

The problem, however, is about more than school pride. For me, the experience was more about understanding the systematic problems of international applications to American colleges from the perspective of a former international applicant.

Two things had changed at my high school since I graduated. First, after years of disappointing results for applications to the U.S. schools, morale about admissions was low. The best were still encouraged to apply and were hoping to get in, but stories of rejections and wait lists had left the students wondering whether they had any chance at all. Second, my high school had worked hard to make college applications a central part of the last year or two on campus. A counseling office was set up, and teachers were consistently trying to write recommendations that better addressed the issues that admission offices were interested in. This was a change that I read as a conscious effort to inculcate a stronger association with the American college application culture.

I name the American college application process a “culture” because that is how I feel many international students need to approach it. It is not just about reading the prompts on an application, filling forms and answering questions. Applying to school in America is about understanding the spirit of the American liberal arts education — something that applicants show they have done through their essays. College essays are, to me, a small glimpse into how students think, how they view the world around them and how they situate themselves in it.

This is a challenge that is not simply procedural. Most Pakistani applicants apply after completing O and A Levels, administered by the University of Cambridge. In my observation of the system, it produces individuals with diverse skill sets that will make great members to any team. But the A Levels do not teach students to formulate perceptions of the world around them. Its exam-centric nature forces students to master subject matter for the big day, but it offers little guidance on how to create your own views and present unique ideas. This holds true most for science and engineering curriculums, on which many schools I came across tend to focus.

Pakistani students often find writing the personal statement on applications to the United Kingdom much easier to fathom than writing essays for the American application system. This could be just about prompts, but it also highlights the differing attitudes of American and British education systems.

For purposes of a rather simplistic portrayal, if we take the idea of American universities to be the production of university professors (as Sir Ken Robinson puts it in his famed TED talk), then the idea of British universities seems to be to produce highly skilled individuals that can be critical members of industrial, commercial or even academic teams. The British system seems to focus less on fostering individual thought as opposed to mastery of systems on which the world is run.

I am in no position to make a value judgment on either system, and I accept that this is an incomplete picture of both systems. These are merely possible conclusions that provide some sort of explanation to my school’s dilemma. Despite their effort to focus on the American application culture, students still find it hard to place themselves in the American essay mindset through no fault of their own; they are just not prepared to do so.

The questions I answered back home were mostly of this nature: “What SAT score do I need to get to Princeton? How many A Level subjects must I get A’s in?” These are indicative of a systemic failure to understand the holistic nature of the American application process. Students are trained to fulfill milestones, not to be bigger thinkers, and are therefore shortchanged when applying to U.S. universities.

Of course, exceptions exist, and some schools do better than others. The only explanation I could fathom was that successful students are more able to place themselves in the American essay mindset because they have had wider exposure than other students. Experiences with certain activities or people both allow and force successful candidates to form their own perceptions of the world. This exposure comes from social and economic background, some extracurricular activities or direct reach to American universities.

If this is in fact the case, then the American college application is biased in favor of students that for any reason have had a chance to get this exposure. This is a problem that schools must work to correct, but there is also the option to reach out to such students from American institutions. Even if they don’t make it here, it would still be valuable exposure that would add to the service these institutions provide to the world.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

On social entrepreneurship

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 12 April 2012.

This year’s introduction of the Keller Center’s eLab incubator program as well as HackPrinceton and the recent creation of the Development Design Initiative have all brought much needed attention to Princeton’s entrepreneurial culture. The annual TigerLaunch — supplemented by the independent TigerLabs 3-month incubator program for startups and the healthy activities of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club — are steadily beginning to showcase the university’s entreprenurial potential to larger and larger audiences.

Princeton is not the first name that comes to mind when we think of startups and entrepreneurship at American colleges. We are largely entrenched as a prime school of social sciences, but despite the stellar reputation and standing of our engineering school, have not been at the forefront of producing leaders in the entrepreneurial space.

But for anyone who witnessed or took part in TigerLaunch last weekend, it is clear that Princeton is bustling with smart, useful ideas and great people willing to do great things with them. Take the case of Pasand,  a social enterprise putting a low-cost, environmentally sustainable sanitary pad on a market of 87.5 million girls in India between the ages of 11-18. They took the prize at TigerLaunch and have made the news multiple times. What is impressive is the sheer dedication with which the team of undergrads continues to run the company and their ability to become part of a larger solution to a complex sociocultural problem.

Duma, another Princeton start-up, is working to target income inequality by making it easy to find jobs and hire people over the widely used SMS network in Kenya. Collections — winner of TigerLaunch 2012’s entrepreneurship track — is reinventing the OS X Finder by allowing access to files stored in the cloud in a native interface, an endeavor that it convincingly argues is actually fulfilling Steve Jobs’ vision in a way that Apple is failing to do.

These are only some of the great ideas at Princeton. I would love to help get Duma working or just get my hands on Collections because it’s so useful. The immediate question, for me at least, is how we can turn Princeton into an entrepreneurial leader.

There are great opportunities to do so. Princeton has many things going for it to qualify as a great place to start a business. The massive support and resources available at the University are invaluable. Our team found our first customers in another company at TigerLaunch, and we found invaluable advice from judges, mentors and audience members that seemed as interested as us in turning Princeton into a start-up hub.

In fact, Princeton’s lack of a strong entrepreneurial past gives new companies that start off at Princeton a sort of de-facto first mover advantage in attracting attention from investors, press and customers on the East Coast. Arguably what we need is one success story: one company that can provide the tipping point for a talented student body to take up the risk of starting companies at Princeton.

The founders of Tussle, a Princeton start-up that has grown in Tigerlabs, hold this exact opinion. In my conversations with them, it was evident that there was a great need for talent to help get these companies off the ground.

Some say that venture capitalists are interested in investing in people not just ideas or companies. There is no shortage of bright, driven people at Princeton. And, as we saw at TigerLaunch, students in nontechnical majors formed a large fraction of the teams. How can Princeton best harness this “people-power”?

If more Princeton classes worked to address external, societal problems, we might be able to do great things to help New Jersey, as was an idea floated in a recent discussion. And as a school with a strong grounding in the liberal arts, Princeton is at a great place to make this dream a reality because it gives its students a substantial grounding in the workings of the society around them.

And work on it has already begun. Every year many great projects from COS 333: Advanced Programming Techniques are marketed directly to customers or deployed at Princeton. The engineering department’s popular class EGR 495: Social Entrepreneurship has become a seed for many great companies that are out there solving real world problems and empowering the people with whom they do business. These problems go far beyond the Orange Bubble and even American shores.

Perhaps that is where our current competitive advantage lies: social entrepreneurship. The term on its own is vague, but has taken on the meaning of businesses that take on the initiative of creating social returns — as opposed to simply financial ones — or addressing issues of social change. Princeton has great potential to continue working in the service of all societies and entrepreneurship is one great way to do it. As we build on our collective resources, like we do at TigerLaunch, it will become clear that these new companies can operate as part of a large collaborative network. There is a lot more that a successful network of companies can tackle together than just start-ups in isolation.

Part of the reason why Princeton isn’t more renowned for its entrepreneurship has been the lack of a culture that fosters entrepreneurial initiatives. If this year’s developments are anything to go by, we might be on the right track to address this. Harnessing this Princeton power can only bring us closer to our communities and our larger goals as an institution.