How a homeschooled Mumbai teen won a scholarship to MIT

20 Sep


A 17-year-old girl from Mumbai with no formal schooling for the last four years just started her first semester at MIT. Her credentials? A-grade programming skills and three medals at the International Olympiad in Informatics.

Malvika Raj Joshi’s story is an extraordinary one. Her story is about the happy coincidence of rare talent and good luck. But it is also the story of her mother Supriya’s unconventional thinking and brave choice.

Four years ago, Malvika was doing well academically when her mother decided to pull her out of school. Supriya explained her radical decision to the media, “We are a middle class family. Malvika was doing well in school but somehow I felt that my children need to be happy. Happiness is more important than conventional knowledge.” She added that the decision was not an easy one at all. Malvika’s father, Raj, was also not keen on the idea at first.

“My husband Raj wasn’t convinced initially as it was a risky proposition. The kids won’t have a 10th or 12th standard certificate and there was bound to be fear. I quit my NGO job and designed an academic curriculum for Malvika. I created a simulation (classroom like situation) at home. The confidence I had as a mother was that I am capable of imparting knowledge to my daughters.”

Homeschooling is still a relatively unheard of concept here – a country where marks and certificates are the gold standard by which young Indians sink or swim. But Supriya’s confidence won over her husband. And it helped Malvika too, allowing her to explore subjects and devote time to the one which fascinated her the most – Programming.

Malvika’s fascination for the subject was matched by her dedication. Supriya told the media, “Suddenly I saw that my daughter was so happy. She was learning more than ever –from the time she woke up to the time she was off to sleep. Knowledge became a passion.”

Wherever there were gaps in Malvika’s learning, she had help. She studied algorithms and maths at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. Her mentor, Madhavan Mukund, who is also the national co-ordinator for the Indian Computing Olympiad praised her, saying, “She was never intimidated even when faced with a mountain of things to learn and went about achieving her goals very methodically.”

And her skill and hard work were rewarded. Malvika won one silver and two bronze medals at the International Olympiad of Informatics.

The irony, however, was that even with her impressive achievements, Malvika could not have found a seat in any college in India, since she does not have a 10th or 12th standard certificate. It was only the Chennai Mathematical Institute which offered her a seat, and that too on their master’s course, acknowledging her skills in, and knowledge of, the subject.

That’s when MIT reached out to her with a scholarship. According to media reports, it was Chris Peterson, assistant director of admission at MIT, who emailed Malvika and advised her to apply.

Although this seems like a fairy tale, Supriya is measured in her reaction lest homeschooling become the new fad for ambitious parents. She told Hindustan Times, “I don’t want to misguide other students and parents into believing that pulling their children out of the education system is the key to success. They are all interested in knowing how to get into MIT. I just tell them that we never aimed for her admission in MIT. I tell parents to understand what their children like.”

By Skendha Singh

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