We've all met them- the toppers, the all rounder star students from school that you just know will "do really well in life". But what if, that person just crashes and burns half way through?
Is it the end of the road?
Today we have one of our own, sharing the story of how she switched game plans from an Ivy League to IIM Indore. All through school, an NRI Mythily Nair had dreamt of landing up in the prestigious halls of the University of Pennsylvania. But life isn't without its curve balls, and our girl weathered every failure & dejections, lost battles and but won her victories, and well, here she is!
Mythily is a third year undergraduate student at IIM Indore’s IPM course. A complete foodie and a gym freak (don't ask) Mythily is also an artist and writer on South Asian culture, cinema and society. We’ve linked her various pages here for you to check them out! (Instagram, Feminism In India)
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I had zero intention of ever coming back to India, much less study here. Having left for Malaysia in 2008, I grew up a proper NRI- international accent and all- and the very concept of mugging and the deathly pressure of entrance exams repulsed me. I was extremely privileged- I went to one of the best British international schools in the region, where the student population consisted of children from over 60 nationalities. I had an incredibly well rounded school life, filled with extracurriculars in drama, debate, some sports and a healthy academic standing.
My seniors were no less- we stood at the base of Everest, looking up while every year they would have offers from the Cambridges, Harvards and Stanfords of the world. Every year, my school would send about ~ 10% of the graduating batch to the London School of Economics. I always think back fondly to my time in school- we had access to incredible opportunities, and with the kind of teachers we had, we stood on the shoulders of giants.
My AS Level exams were scheduled for May-June 2017. 4 subjects; mine were Chemistry, Mathematics, Economics and English Literature. The grades you get in your first set of exams (the AS) are half of your final A-Level grades, and these scores are sent to university to get a seat on a conditional acceptance basis. Mine was a difficult combination, I was told. Cambridge A-Levels in Chemistry and English Literature were notorious for being extremely tough papers, with a large percentage of your grade owing to luck.
I had been largely a high achieving student in school. I got straight A's and A*'s for my IGCSE's, and my A Level predicted scores were no different. Since I was active in school's debate society and student council, my teachers had high expectations.
I won’t give the reasoning for why I got the grades I got. But closing the results portal with an A* in Literature, a C in Chemistry, a D in Maths and an E in Economics, in the exams that were to determine my seat at my dream school, only to see my desktop wallpaper as the UPenn homepage, broke something inside me.
What happens then, once you screw up?
My case, it was a matter of picking myself up. Every last shattered fragment of me. My teachers were in disbelief- a few outright said they didn’t think these were my grades. But for me, I didn’t have the luxury of time to sit and mope. I decided to do something risky: I decided to rewrite my Economics AS Level in the next sitting, which was 2 months away. The 2 Maths papers from AS I would rewrite along with the rest of my final A-Level in June 2018. I dropped Chemistry, slamming shut the last door of engineering/pharma my father wanted me to retain.
The entire house got to work all at once. My family took it personally upon themselves- my exams had become everyone’s exams. This means no more social life, minimal travelling, as little disruption as possible. They also saw how much I was hurting, the toll that the last 1 year had been on me emotionally, and physically. I started going to therapy, and with the support of a friend, I started going to the gym. This is August 2017.
IIM Indore (?)
Fast track to March 2018. An old school senior of mine had told me about a double degree course in IIM Indore, something along the lines of a liberal arts degree, “there’s no entrance, NRI’s submit the SAT and if you get shortlisted, you go for the Written Assessment and Personal Interview”. I had a decent SAT score of 1420 to spare and nothing to lose. I filled the application, submitted it, and forgot about it- I had bigger exams to worry about.
Although I had a feeling I’d get the call, I didn’t expect the timing- my interview scheduled between the Econ essay paper and the Mechanics module for Maths. I threw caution to the wind, and flew down to Chennai with my dad. I breezed through the WAT (A Level Literature had to help somewhere, right?) and went and had a disastrous interview. From not knowing some basic popular energy schemes in MP, to forgetting what Permutations and Combinations were, it was a roller coaster ride which ended just like roller coasters do- in less than 5 minutes.
(To be fair, I did kind of weasel my way to showing I did know something- for the energy scheme, the professors were kind enough to ask me to guess and derive what the word “Ujjala” could be a scheme for, I did some convoluted word twisting and linked it to solar energy, then spat some facts about Kerala’s energy saving international airport. Score!)
After that eventful afternoon, I smiled and told my expectant dad that we’re going to spend a fantastic gap year together. I got my head into gear by the time I left the hotel- I had a very tough maths paper in 2 days. I thought of it as another miss and moved on.
The Acceptance Letter
I was on a vacation in Nepal when the email came. “Provisional Entry”, it read. But when I opened the portal a few days later, this was the conversation that ensued:
Me, checking information, while my parents watch TV in the hotel room- “Guys, what is a merit rank?”
My father, casually responds “it’s just a number they give to students who write the exam”
“Yes, but what does it mean?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Well I have a merit rank number here and I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean”
“What is your number”
“Tell me what does it mean?”
“It’s a measure of how well you did, compared to other students”
“That’s so messed up, pitting kids against one another. What is a category, I don’t understand what general mea-”
“Goddamnit Mythily, what is the number?”
“It says 1.”
The air in the room went still for a few moments. I had never seen this much shock and awe in the eyes of either of my parents. My dad jumped off the bed, yanked mum off the chair, and everyone huddled around the laptop on my lap, while a light drizzle fell outside our hotel room window. There was maddening laughter, a triumphant joy that my parents must have felt, the figurative bird flipped to the universe for overcoming the struggles we faced.
They left the decision to me. “If you don’t want to take it, it is completely okay”, they assured me. If I took it, I’d be leaving Malaysia in less than a month, it meant bye-bye America, and my classes would start in 3 weeks. My life and everything I knew about it would turn upside down and in less than a month.
I thought it through. With the company of the beautiful mountains of Mustang, Nepal, I weighed my options. My reasoning was frankly, quite simple:
An education that’s one of the best India has to offer. The MBA is obviously, is the big pull factor, but compared to other BComm/BA degrees, IPM is one of the most well rounded. I knew the course outline by heart.
The sort of financial strain that my parents would have had to go through had I chosen to pursue an undergrad degree at a US college would have been equal to or greater than what I pay for 2 degrees here. Although they would have figured it out, it only made sense to not force them to pay for it.
An MBA gives me the freedom to venture in other spaces. I can take this degree and move to other fields of my interest, like media, or writing.
Before I left Nepal that week, I signed the acceptance letter, uploaded the documents and took a leap of faith.
The Road Ahead
This isn’t a success story. This doesn’t mean that now that I’ve made it to an Old IIM, my life is set, now it’s all sunshine and daisies from here on. This is just the beginning. Since moving back I’ve developed massively as a person (as one does in college)- I’ve made some incredible friends, learnt to speak Hindi from scratch (although the same friends make fun of my grammar), rediscovered my passion for writing and begun publishing, and found out that I have a much greater tolerance for spice (never doubt yourself!)
But accepting failures and shortcomings are something I’ve come to learn with time, too. I’ve realised I’m just not good at some things- but that's not a crime. I've rejected opportunities I knew weren’t the right fit for me, both personally and professionally, and I’ve come to gently accept that no matter how much I try, numbers and I just won’t get along. But these experiences of loss don’t make me a lesser person. Sometimes, it takes years to figure out what one likes, what one wants and everything in between.
Embrace the process- it's what'll ultimately define what makes you, you.
My story here isn’t meant to be preachy (although the last 3 paragraphs are seemingly senti), or tell you anything that you haven’t already heard. I've just begun the final year of my undergraduate, and I have 3 long years to go. Maybe, if you are lost, stuck and figuring things out, throw every fear away and just try something.
Take that risk, make that bold move. You will never know what you’re meant for.
As for me, I’ll keep you posted, since I’m still figuring it out.
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