Thomas Lifuti (class of 2019) tells of his initial experiences of Ashoka University

Apart from all the days in Week 0 (or O-Week) beginning at 9 AM IST with hour-long sessions, no day was the same as any of the previous ones. 9 AM IST is 5:30 AM CAT. At this time of my ‘night’, I had to:

1. Be awake (i.e. by 5:30 AM)

2. Be alert enough to learn cognisant 

3. Find the means of switching on my computer and use it without clicking any ‘death’ buttons.

Under normal circumstances, I cannot maintain all these three attributes at the same time; only two at most. Whatever happened to me, and I still haven’t figured out how, not only did I possess all the above constraints concurrently but also,during the grand Ashoka Orientation Week, a fourth: I was looking forward to more! And I had thought my interview during the application round was the best university experience I had ever had—it was not even close to a glimpse of Ashoka.

Gratitude. That’s what I’m filled with, joyfully. Coming from my weekly, and sometimes monthly, 5km jog, I received an email from Ashoka University. “It’s probably a newsletter”, I thought to myself. I opened it. This was the first time I had run 10km in one day at a constant speed, 12.5km/h, nonstop—unless my fitness tracker was dead, and I’m positive it was. The second jog was to make sure I had good enough vision to read the email again; because the first time I read it, my eyes were uncontrollably watery. The email was my offer letter to attend Ashoka University.

A month later, my 100% financial aid package notification arrived. Before that was a tedious application process. Simply put, I had no ‘formal’ documents to support my application. I have dreams, goals—even some impossible ones—but my hope, an achingly ever-existent companion, was ignited by my parent’s financial struggle to enable me to get an education. This further kindled my determination to use whatever resources I had available, and they were scarce, to make the most of my educational experience. 

But it still wasn’t straight forward: the 100% offer didn’t include my visa, travel or vaccination costs. Nevertheless, before my hopes of attending Ashoka died, Jennipher and Sandra had raised the outstanding amount… I can now travel, get the visa, and take those painful jabs (at the time of writing this reflection, I’m seeing double because of two shots!). What they did for me was nothing short of amazing. 

Our Orientation Week was scheduled to begin on 24th August, for 7 days, then the official opening on 31st. What I didn’t see coming, however, is that Ashoka had a pre-orientation arrangement. To my understanding, the week that started on 31st August was Week 1, therefore the Orientation Week (O’ Week) was Week 0. So, that meant the meetings that were held before Week 0 were part of week -1, or as I call it the “Pre-Orientation Orientation”

Now, I like to think of myself as organised to some degree, but Ashoka’s level of preparation was way beyond the scope of my contemplation—who starts from the negatives, through zero, to the positives planning? They literally had time slots for resting and playing games… hours in fact, and we still accomplished everything in a week!

The O’ Week had answered 90% of my questions about the institution—they were so comprehensive—with the 10% mostly being me asking myself about what I would need to take to Ashoka with me. 

Our meetings have so far been online. The time difference between Zambia and India is 3.5 hours. I hadn’t realised this initially until my Introduction to Critical Thinking course Professor asked me where I was from. Full of pride for my country—I was definitely the only one in the group, so that’s something—I exclaimed “Zambia!” Everyone’s face was lit with excitement (I’m assuming I had given them a reason to visit Zambia) and the Professor said, “Wow, you are on ZST!”. I did not understand this earlier nor remember what she said after, because, in my head were these little “people” in my head screaming and toasting to, “We’re at Ashoka! We’re in a lecture! The Professor knows me!”. ZST meant Zambia Standard Time (which is CAT). This was my first lecture at Ashoka, and I’m sure I missed out on so much because of the voices in my head.

I’m a multipotentialite, and it is this ‘disorder’ that drives my curiosity. I like to try out as many things as I’m interested in, when possible. Luckily, at my liberal arts university, this is no longer a dream. I am interested in Computer Science, Mathematics, Philosophy, Economics, Bio-Tech Sciences, etc. and I can try out all of these and discover which has all my interests covered before I declare my major. Right now, I’m trying out Philosophy, Mathematics, Science and Reading and Writing.

It’s my second week (practically 4th if we count from the -1 week), and I’m still amazed by the mode of teaching at Ashoka. Every evening after my daily schedule, I keep saying to myself, “So this is Ashoka, so this is liberal arts education…wow!” I had a dream of learning at a liberal arts institution, studying all my interests and actually enjoying the process of exploring them! 

I thought this was the goal, but now I understand, there is no such thing as a destination (if there was, why would the universe continue expanding to nowhere in the first place?). And now, I understand that it is what I do now that will determine what my tomorrow would be like, if it arrives. Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” I’ve always wanted to “do” something significant for my community, though I didn’t know how or what exactly, so I was waiting for the right moment to start it. But I missed the idea that my impact had already begun. It started with me. Slowly but surely, I’m exercising what I’ve found to be now the aim of my philosophy class “to form arguments (conversations) that lead us to ask the right questions and find a way to the solutions”. Perhaps the question I should’ve asked is “What do I want to see in myself?”

Amidst this much order, is a little chaos too much to ask for? Well, with Ashoka, it isn’t. Here’s an example of my first-day dilemma, the chaos of the semester: abbreviations, the Ashokan side-effect. Ashokans use several abbreviations. Almost every more-than-one-part word is abbreviated—it took me a few days to understand my timetable. Here’s an example, “To all students in WG L: the links to your PoS DSs have been updated in your LMS portal”. This sentence is the most basic form of the Ashokan abbreviations-language. It translates to, “To all students in Workgroup L: the links to your Principle of Science Discussion Sessions has been updated in your Learning Management System portal”.

It’s almost impossible to miss out on any current-affairs at Ashoka. You get over 50 emails a day, which include e-newspapers—so the news is covered. All these emails are intentionally marked “important”–they never go to spam—they must be read. In case IST to ZST time conversions are complicated, your custom calendar has your schedules sorted out, with automatic conversions based on your location.

The reality is that I will be learning online at least until the end of the year while COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. But I am already benefitting from being off to Ashoka and will be patient until I can physically be on campus…

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