We invited IB programme graduates to reflect on post-IB life and offer perspectives on topics of their choosing. Alumna Uttara Thakore writes to us from her home in Germany.
Four years ago, shortly after I got my IB diploma, I went to visit my aunt in Jaipur in Rajasthan, India. While there, I visited a state-run girl’s orphanage where there were about 20 young girls, all of whom were, give or take a few years, my age.
The city itself is a favorite of tourists because it embodies the grandiose and color of India. I knew it well because I attended 10th grade there several years before. I also knew it well because it was stifling and succeeded in turning me into a silent observer. When you are a young woman in an environment where traditions and propriety are so important to the fabric of said environment, to have ideas that are any different gets you into trouble. So I did what most people do in such situations and simply watched, while hoping to be left alone. Even without the vocabulary and worldly-wisdom that helps you define what an education is, I instinctively knew that a brainwashed rat-race was not it. When my year in 10th grade was over, I sat my mother down and told her I wanted to move to a different state where there was a school that taught the IB.
A month later, I started the Diploma Programme (DP) at a charming little school a bit lower down the Indian peninsula. It was an instant change; I was reading again, and reading books, not textbooks, and finding congruence in its academic and personal gains. I was still cosmically miserable, but at least I was feeding my brain decent food. What I later identified and love about the DP is that it is somewhat like a compressed liberal arts education, and I did not feel the need to continue down that road for university. While I applaud those who write, create and act to represent vignettes of the world and the human condition, I was pretty much ready to be a part of actionable change.
Still cosmically miserable, I travelled around India for a year and it was during this trip that I stayed with my aunt and first visited the orphanage. I already had my IB ammo in my brain to help me process the world with a different iteration, and because of that I had something to say to these young women, who for all effective purposes were me, and could have been me, and I knew that as much then as I do now.
India is racially diverse and I did look very different, a few shades lighter than most of the girls, but it was not lost on me that as I saw myself in them, they saw themselves in me. I’ve since learned this is true for all authentic human connection. Presumably for that reason, they opened up to me, as friends do for friends.
I told them about the books I was reading (in a misguided attempt to find myself and figure out what I wanted to do next). I told them about the city I was planning to visit next. I told them about my high-school love and we proceeded to giggle about boys. They perceived my smartphone the way the aborigines treated the coke bottle in the Gods Must Be Crazy. We would play board games in the courtyard and the younger girls would cuddle up to me when I would read to them. The older girls would gossip like all girls do, but there were moments when they seemed sad.
I would also chat with their warden, a very sweet, matronly old woman. I mostly just listened, and from everything she told me I knew that the orphanage was more Game of Thronesesque than Disneyesque. While I want to tell you that our conversations were heartwarmingly enlightening, all I felt was confused and ever so slightly powerless. They had everything they needed to live a good life, truly, despite what one familiar with developing economies might think. They had books and clothes, and while they didn’t have private school and internet, they still had everything they needed to develop a curiosity about the world. So why didn’t they?
I later heard that after they had hit 18 years old, they were married—it was all very nice and civil; they could refuse if they so wanted. The part of me that wanted to protest about what I felt sure were unfair rules, didn’t have much to say. They could do whatever they wanted; they didn’t have to be married off if they didn’t want to be. So was it a true democracy then? Could they work and live life on their own terms? As it turns out they couldn’t, for the simple reason that they didn’t know how. It was at that point that a thought along the lines of “I want to study more” was travelling through my head.
A few months later I enrolled at what I’m told is one of Europe’s finest business schools. I slugged it out in Milan for a few years and starting working in Berlin after that. I haven’t got my degree yet so when I list my academic qualifications, I can only scan my IB diploma. And so I look at it often.
I came back to visit Jaipur a few months ago, with yet another theoretically academic yet fundamentally life-changing experience between this and my last visit to the city. I said hello to my friends. I hung out with my mom. I made my germophobe-German fiancé visit me in the city and showed him around.
All this time, those girls have never been far from my thoughts.
I asked about them you see. I’m told they’re probably scattered around in the villages in the state, married with children, no doubt. I debated tracking them down but I’m not sure what would be the point, plus I’m anchored to my job and the stress of daily life. And it’s not like I have much to say to them, because due to the laws of developmental economics, there are yet more walls between us that they would probably feel the existence of just as prominently now as they did then.
I’ll find them one day, especially one particular girl who was exactly my age and was the only one who listened with rapt attention as I attempted to tell them about the book I was reading at the time (Animal Farm) in my truly lamentable Hindi.
An education is books, an education is dialogue and education is empowerment. Everyone deserves it and everyone should have it, and while everyone knows that, everyone mostly follows convention. I had one and it left me alone to figure out for myself what “it”, education itself, is. I had one that made me not want to be everyone.
For that alone, I thank whoever it was that devised the IB diploma syllabus, and those who support its continued evolution. It was the first step in what I hope turns out to be a valuable life.
Uttara Thakore is 23 and enormously fond of otters. She’s been questioning things since way before her time in a classroom, and she continues to question. Connect with her on LinkedIn and throw another question at her.