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Undergrads Visit India to Study IT, Return Home with Life Lessons

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Undergrads Visit India to Study IT, Return Home with Life Lessons

IDSC 3001 is an information technology (IT) core course taken by all Carlson School Undergraduate students. For 16 students who took the class from Professor Ravi Bapna last year, it was more than just an IT course. It was a life-changing experience.

After seven weeks of studying technical material at the Carlson School, Bapna and the students traveled to Hydrabad and Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of the East. It was there the students were introduced to a different side of IT - its ability to transform the lives of people.

"The part of the trip that got the students really excited was seeing IT in the context of society," says Bapna, the Board of Overseers Professor of Information and Decision Sciences.

In addition to meeting with tech giants such as Infosys, Bapna and the class visited government agencies, NGOs, and nonprofits including the UID Project, which is using state-of-the-art IT to provide identities to India's marginalized population.

"It was inspiring to see how really smart people were trying to make life better in India," says Emilie Sieker, a senior who participated in the program. "The class wasn't just IDSC 3001 that happens to be in India. It was a conglomeration of IDSC studies and India. He did a really good job of combining the two."

While Sieker and her classmate Miles Swammi had an idea that their professor was well connected in the IT world, it wasn't until they arrived in India that they realized just how many connections he had.

"He knew so many people in so many companies and the government that were in high-up places," says Sieker.

"We would kid around on our trip that Ravi is a rock star," adds Swammi.

For both students, visiting companies, nonprofits, and NGOs helped tell a broader story about the role of IT that doesn't necessarily appear in any textbook.

"Each of our experiences gave a different perspective," says Swammi. "It was one thing to appreciate how IT is used in companies, but it was another thing to appreciate how it has an impact on a society. IT has revolutionized how India thinks. We got that quite clearly throughout the experience."

On experience that particularly impacted the students was a visit to the nonprofit Parikrma Humanity Foundation.

"Parikrma made a really big impression," says Swammi. "It was a school for children in the slums. It didn't just teach them elementary school stuff. It followed them through secondary education and helped with job placement. It seemed like it was making a difference digging down and getting at the root of the problem."

"When they [the children from the slums] go to the school their lives will change," adds Bapna. "They will likely go to college and become part of the middle class, which is an incredible achievement.

The visit showed to our students the importance of education and how directly it leads to opportunities for these kids. They had no prior sense of this situation and that's why they got so passionate about it."

Seeing India has helped Swammi look at his own surroundings in a new light.

"It was a little bit of a call to action," he says. "For an American coming back to Minnesota...we still have a lot of things we can do. It made it clear to me that I have to give back to my community."

Sieker agrees. "It makes me appreciate the opportunities I have," she says. "We have such easy access to education. To see how competitive it is there....Wow!"

To express their appreciation, the students sponsored the education of a child for a year at Parikrma in Bapna's name. Honored and touched by the student's gesture, Bapna and his wife will continue sponsoring the student, Dikhshita, whose father is a sweeper and whose mother is a maid in Bangalore.

"He really went above and beyond in leading the class," says Sieker of Bapna. "He's so much more than a professor. The connection that I made with Ravi and Theresa (Heath, the site coordinator) make me feel more a part of the school. That's really important to me."

"For him to take the time for a bunch of twentysomething-year-olds to show them India and teach them about IT...We appreciate that a lot," adds Swammi.

Although still in school, Sieker and Swammi have found the trip to India is already having a positive effect on their careers. Sieker credits the trip for her selection in KPMG's highly-competitive global internship program that sent her to South Africa.

"I had more than just travel," Sieker says of her qualification. "I had looked at business in a global context." Sieker will join KPMG fulltime after graduating this May.

Swammi spent the past summer interning at Target on a team that serves as the liaison between Minneapolis and the Bangalore office. He found his IDSC 3001 experience gave him an advantage over peers who attended other schools.

"It was unique for me to bring to that table that I had been to Bangalore and could know what our business analysts in Bangalore were going through," says Swammi, who is currently weighing multiple job offers.

But the students weren't the only ones who benefited from IDSC 3001. The trip to India also had an effect on Bapna.

"I personally gained a lot," he says. "It was the first time I got to spend 14 days with the students and I really got to know each one of them and what drives them and what they think about.

It's rare to get that experience in a regular classroom. To see how eager these people are to learn and absorb and how thoughtful they were in all their visits was a really interesting experience."

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