‘Allow kids to think critically’

BETTER EDUCATION

Since 2008, Kashmir Education Initiative (KEI), a volunteer-driven philanthropic organization with a focus on education in Kashmir, has been quietly supporting education of talented and deserving Kashmiri students, besides financially helping those who otherwise can’t continue their education. KEI identifies and evaluates deserving students and then promotes, mentors them, and monitors their educational development and progress. Since 2007, KEI has sponsored tuition of hundreds of meritorious and needy students, organized lecture series in Kashmir, successfully conducted winter coaching for high school grades and also instituted awards for best performing students. In future KEI intends to partner with professionals, academicians and researchers across the globe to interface with students in pre-college grade levels as well as students in colleges and universities to motivate Kashmiri students to pursue higher education.
The President of Kashmir Education Initiative (KEI) in USA, Tahir Qazi, in an interview with GK Features Editor Majid Maqbool talks about the idea of KEI, its inception in US, and how KEI mentorship programs and scholarships enable Kashmiri students to achieve excellence through quality education. As the KEI president, Tahir is the chief executive officer and responsible to ensure the overall strategy and functioning of the organization.

Tell us about the idea of Kashmir Education Initiative (KEI). How was KEI started and who are the people involved with this initiative?
KEI was started by a group of concerned Kashmiri Americans in Boston, Massachusetts area in 2007 and started operations in 2008. Our vision is to enable Kashmiri students to achieve excellence through quality education. This non-profit, non-political, and non-religious initiative was established because: a) we believe in education as a critical tool for development and progress, b) we wanted to consolidate sporadic expatriate efforts at small individual levels into a more organized effort to create scale and quality.
People associated with the initiative outside Kashmir are engineers, entrepreneurs, and doctors and those in the valley are academicians and entrepreneurs. The board of directors in USA includes me, Suhail Rashid, Umar Sheikh, Amin Bhat, Dr. Faisal Farooq, and Dr. Ali Nadroo. The board of directors in the valley include Dr. Shaida Andrabi, Dr. Farooq Lone, Dr. Imtiaz Khan, Tajamul Qadri, Dr. Niyaz Sheikh, Sajad Athar, Dr. Nazir Dar, Dr. Firdous Khanday, and Dr. Mohsin Bhat. In addition to boards of directors, we have volunteers and a very small team of employees. Volunteers are the back bone of the organization and neither they nor anyone on the boards of directors are compensated for their effort for the organization.

How does KEI work in Kashmir and abroad?
Currently KEI-Kashmir and KEI-USA are two separate legal entities, as required by the local laws for such organizations. On the whole, Kashmir Education Initiative works on a variety of efforts, but essentially our mission is to connect resources with targeted recipients. We identify the recipients of our scholarships and mentorship by finding out who are the best and the brightest academically but who may not have full financial means to pursue a great education. Once identified, we provide them scholarships and career/academic guidance through our mentorship program. In addition to our scholarship program targeted for 9th-12th grade students, we are helping students in Masters and Ph.D. programs with financial assistance and application process guidance to apply in colleges and universities in USA for doctoral and post-doctoral degrees. These are people who are very bright but may find it hard to gather financial resources or may not fully understand the process to apply for such programs here in USA. 

Why was there a need for such an initiative in the education sector in Kashmir?
For three reasons:
We want to help academically very bright kids to get an education and prevent their loss into illiteracy, when they are the ones who have the most potential to make a difference in the lives of many others when they grow up.
There were many individuals helping Kashmiri students at an individual level; we wanted to organize such efforts into a larger one and bring quality, standards, professionalism, and a consistent selection mechanism into play.
We believe in education as a critical tool for development and progress.

In your view what are the lacunas and shortcomings in our education system in Kashmir?
For one, the societal attitudes towards education need to change. Parents think of their kids as buckets into which knowledge needs to be poured rather than see them as sponges that absorb knowledge. They also delay significant life skills learning by preventing the failure of their kids at an early age in little academic pursuits. They send them to schools, after and before school tuition classes, and provide in-home coaching. As a result, in an overwhelmingly high percentage of cases, we produce students who have never "failed" in their academics, can recall facts and figures, but cannot think critically. Once such a student enters job market, it is hard for him or her to write a letter or communicate effectively or to solve a real problem that they did not learn in school. Secondly, the materials that are taught currently in schools are outdated and not always relevant. The engineers that we produce, for example in IT, do not have good exposure to current technologies and do not have a great hands-on experience. Thirdly, access to education, particularly for those with a financial need, is not guaranteed, and as a result those who could do a great job for the social progress in future are lost before they even get a chance to get into the job market.

What needs to be done to overcome these gaps?
In order to overcome these gaps, first, we have to change our societal attitudes. Parents have to learn to let go and let their kids learn from making mistakes. Their job should be to allow their kids to think critically. So the questions at the dinner time in the home should not revolve around the themes of "what grade did you get on your mid-term exam," but rather, "how did you solve that problem and what could have you done differently?" This also requires parents to encourage their kids to write and express their opinions and ideas freely. We also must stop sending our kids to coaching classes. This creates a dependence, rather than ability to stand on one's own feet and to take ownership for one's own success.
Secondly, the government and private schools and colleges must make a concerted effort to revamp the curriculum. There is a very positive role parents can play by creating a body that can work with colleges and schools and publish ratings on schools on how current the curriculum is relative to what these parents see in the job market.
Thirdly, government needs to work extensively to provide affordable and universal access to high quality education at the middle school level. This is when kids are most likely to drop-off, particularly if they are from families under financial duress. Society also needs to donate generously to organizations who are credible, honest, and produce good results. Also, individuals should look around and find out how they might lend a helping hand to a neighbour or a relative, so that they get an education. It is the education that will make us a better society.

What are the projects that KEI has taken up at present in Kashmir, and what kind of scholarships KEI awards to the Kashmiri students?
We have the regular merit/means scholarship project that is focused on meritorious students in 9th to 12th grades. We also have KEI Science Scholarship program, which is a merit/need based program awarded to academically outstanding students in the Faculty of Science. All of them are for academically outstanding students with a financial need.
We have a pilot program going on right now that is called sponsor-one-child program, where one donor takes care of the educational needs to a specific student. A portion of this project is focused on students who pass 12th grade and are now in a professional program. We are also in pilot phase of our mentorship project. This is where we are connecting specific students with specific mentors, who provide academic coaching, career counseling, and help broaden the thinking horizons of the students. Some of these mentors are locally in Kashmir and some are in USA.

How have students responded to the scholarship and mentorship programs of KEI? Any positive results so far?
We have produced some extraordinary results so far. As examples for the last three years of results, in 2010, we had 10 of our students appear in 10th class exams and 9 secured distinction and 6 had more than 90% marks. In 2011, we had 13 students appear in 12th grade and 10 secured distinctions. In 2012, among 20,000 students from J&K, there were 13 of our students who appeared in Common Entrance Test. Out of 200 who qualified there were five who were from KEI. These kids are now pursuing professional degrees in medicine, Engineering, and Agriculture.

What are the future plans of KEI and what specific areas in the education system would you like to focus?
We are working on doubling the number of scholarships for 2013. Our strategic goals are to establish a sound donor base, working on grant writing and corporate gift-matching, build our delivery capacity, and to organize a very strong base of volunteers. As we scale up, we want to consider helping other Kashmiri kids who may have migrated out of the valley. In the far-off future, the organization's strategy will be determined by its boards of directors and can entail significant scaling of the projects to provide mentorship opportunities through an electronic exchange by connecting mentors throughout the world with mentees of KEI. But the key is to improve processes, establish strong standards of performance, and deliver tangible results at a reasonable cost.

Any message you would like to convey about improving the working of KEI so as to achieve the desired results?
Please support KEI by providing us feedback on how the program can be improved. Visit our website at www.kashmirei.org. Please volunteer with us and donate your time and money for those who are craving for an education, without any expectation to get anything back in return. If we do this selflessly as individuals, those who we are helping right now, will at some point help others. This is how you create societal leaders. When a society reaches a tipping point of leaders at every level in various spheres of life, it makes a transition to become a productive and happy society. In the process, it gets connected to global progress as a productive, equal, and proud member. Let us work towards that vision.

Lastupdate on : Sun, 9 Dec 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sun, 9 Dec 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Mon, 10 Dec 2012 00:00:00 IST




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