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Excellence Blueprints

The Career Excellence Journey Begins

In September 2015, a team of Mentors & Advisors from Institutional Excellence Forum (IEF) visited Hojai, Assam and had the opportunity to interact with Teachers from various schools supported by Ajmal Foundation.

The cause for this visit was to run a Mentorship and Excellence Program under IEF’s Career Excellence Centre (CEC) and train teachers to internalize the approaches of Mentorship and hence drive Excellence among students. The program was also a context setting for us to better understand the quality of support that the students received within their school environment. The Teachers’ and Ajmal Foundation’s high level of commitment to this cause energized us immensely to soon return to Hojai with the next set of activities – Student Talent Assessment.

This narrative therefore intends to provide an insight into Ajmal Foundation's support and the extent of research &deep dives Institutional Excellence Forum engaged in to ensure that the content of interventions by IEF is kept sequential, focused on Excellence and is customized and adapted based on our real time discoveries from ground-zero.

After the Teacher’s workshop was over in September, Mr. Amit Garg and Mr. Abhay Nair, the Founder Trustees for Institutional Excellence Forum, Dr. Gautam Raj Jain, the Chief Mentor for the teacher’s workshop, and I sat down with other experts from the fields of Sociology, Psychology & Behavioural Sciences for 3 straight days to discuss, plan and design the successive intervention at CEC Hojai.

Students were most certainly our next focus.

Held on 18th - 27th February 2016
at Maryam Ajmal Women’s College
of Science and Technology Hojai, Assam

Psychometric Assessment was the first planned intervention, which was run in December 2015 on 700+ students to profile their talent aptitude and provide a career direction. As per the CEC student enrolment forms, there was a good percentage of students which requested for the assessment in Assamese instead of English and so it was translated and enabled on mobile tabs for the benefit of the students.

713 Students of Class XI and XII from schools enrolled with CEC, Hojai, undertook Psychometric Assessment using the latest tools on tablets

Besides the planned psychometric assessment, a deeper, more personalized approach was what we were still aiming for.

For the next 3 months, our team, between endless arguments, discussions, fights, humour, research, other commitments and real time focus on identifying a unique methodology and tool, worked and reworked on every aspect to reach the impact format – the Student Talent ScoreCard.

The Talent ScoreCard now is a standardized format, summarizing 3 key aspects of CEC assessments & advisory – Psychometric Assessment Report, Talent Spotting & Mapping interview evidences and Student Progress on Advisor Feedback.

Once this was formalized, our scheduling with Ajmal Foundation for a 10 day intervention with 50 students had begun.

At Ajmal Foundation Headquarters

On February 17th 2016 Ms. Gayatri Derasari, CEC Career Advisor and I arrived at the Foundation Headquarters

We were graciously received by Dr. Azad, the CEC Program Convener, Dr. Yahya Mazumdar, College Administrator at Ajmal Foundation, Mr. Barbhuiya, Superintendent at the facility and Mr. Abdul Khadir, CEC Program Coordinator.

A warm welcome, refreshments and we were led to our rooms. The first time I had stayed at the Headquarters in September, I was delighted to know that the room I was in, had been specially constructed to host a lady guest. This time around, another room was made available because there were two of us. A separate vegetarian kitchen was set up too, since Ms. Derasari and I are both vegetarians.

During our 10 day long stay, Madanji, the resident kitchen genius, made sure that there was all sorts of variety and a balanced diet laid out for us. On demand cups of tea and coffee to help us stay awake and work longer, refreshments and hourly checks on, ‘if we needed anything’. This specific experience was such a great enabler for Gayatri and me since our tight schedule and our lengthy program discussions had left us clueless about everything else.

Overall, Ajmal Foundation’s care and hospitality gave us a lot more headspace to stay focused and be productive with our agenda.

Day 2 Onward

On Day 2, the first 5 students accompanied by a school staff member arrived at 9:30 AM and were seated in the waiting area of the Foundation Headquarters.

Our session began at 10 AM.

Fortunately, our walk to work was only 4 steps. The Trustee’s Room opposite our rooms was re-organized to be used for the Student Talent Assessment activity. The activity was rolled-out for 50 Class XI Science students from Maryam Ajmal College for Science and Technology for Women, Hojai, Assam

Starting with the first student, we engaged in a structured interview discussion.

Important factors such as, the advisor’s role &conduct, body language, facial expressions, tone and use of language were kept under constant check to ensure that the student felt comfortable to respond and freely expressed her thought process towards building a career based on the inherent abilities.

Between Gayatri and me, we alternated our roles as the interviewer and the conversation scribe. This role definition is a part of the applied methodology whereby a team of 2 advisors is designated to conduct the interview and hand-document evidences towards student’s body language, tone, facial expression, reflectiveness, logic & relevance of responses and the overall conversational aspects.

Based on the self-reflection questions, the student responses were further documented as evidences under CEC’s set of career related talent attributes and essential competencies, helping us map the student’s interest towards a suitable career option. Furthermore, the probing questions were streamlined based on the student’s subject of interest either from the Science stream or any other field of study they showed interest and talent in. Post the interaction, our team had a 1 hour window to interpret the documented evidences and generate the Talent ScoreCard before calling in the next student.

Each hour of this interface of the Talent Assessment Activity was treated like gold.

Beginning with the 1st till the 50th student, each of them, nervous or not nervous, crossed the barrier of apprehension and opened up wonderfully for us to provide our advisory intervention. More than anything, this was an exercise to discover the importance of building unbiased trust with students for them to discover more about their own capabilities.

Program in Motion

Considering the dynamic nature of the approach and the tool to identify students’ inherent interest, abilities and talent, the live roll-out of the tool across 10 days had to be facilitated through diligent coordination, keeping the schedule and arrangements of the interview environment in check. This could have been a possible barrier to the smooth roll-out of this tightly packed activity schedule had not Mr. Abdul Khadir, the CEC Program co-ordinator at Hojai ensured that the activity decorum, queuing of the students and our discussion hours were managed effectively. A call-bell was placed at our table to reach out to him as and when we needed. Surprisingly he promptly appeared each time, with a smile and a greeting accompanying the student and making each session-opening feel like the first session of the day.

The responses and insights we got from the students ranged from heart rending to proud moments to revelations to a genuine realization of Ajmal Foundation’s effort in providing a ground for nurturing and growth. Between Gayatri and me, each hour spent with each of the 50 students felt like we had lived 50 different lives in these 10 days and were fortunate to have made some difference in these 50 lives. A strong sense of ethics and an equally strong desire to change the situation for self, their families, village and community were the reasons for them to seek a career direction, clearly indicating that this is the youth of our country and it deserves to uncover its best possibility.

Students undergoing Career Guidance & Counseling CEC Hojai, Assam

Students walked in puzzled about their careers, upon discussion brightened up at the prospect of finding a new direction and walked out with greater resolve to put in a conscious effort, seek information about their discovered talent and work in the new found career direction.

Most of these students had moved to an English medium in class XI after having been in Assamese or Bengali medium for 10 years. The accompanying teachers sometimes helped us translate the student responses, at other times, the students themselves attempted to communicate in either Hindi or English, clearly telling us the level of honesty and the increasing comfort students felt to engage in a dialogue with the CEC Career Advisors.We shared books on career options and the preparation that each of the listed careers require. This was also the first step towards enabling the Career Excellence Centre Library.

With this, we saw the level of interest and attention increase visibly through student’s facial expressions and series of questions they now asked. This was also noticed by Mr. Khasrul Isalm, the Manager at Ajmal Foundation. The students he interacted with, post the activity, were relaxed and at the same time energized and focused to pursue a career based on their interest, ability and talent instead of those careers which, so far, they were pressurized into or were merely socially acceptable.

Program Break

By day 4, as was natural, we had reached a saturation point because of the hourly repetitiveness of the activity.

Considering the volume of focus – demonstration by the advisor to remain unbiased during the interview – meet the length of the scheduled activity – cover the volume of students and evidence & interpretation based documentation of the backend reports, we decided to take a part of our work to another location and also experience a change. A half day trip to a nearby nature reserve was organized by Dr. Azad. Gayatri & I took our laptops and a pile of hand written reports to sit in the lush greens of the resort and begin the report documentation. I believe we missed the hospitality and a sense of security at the Headquarters and within an hour lost our interest and decided to return. Rupam, who accompanied us for this outing was both supportive and surprised, as were we. However, it is important that the team working on such an activity takes a break to ensure that the focus does not get diluted. In retrospect, the drive to the nature reserve and back through the Hojai village did us good.

As a part of our plan, we had intended to cover 5 students on each day, after the break, starting day 5 of the program we were covering 7 students a day making our intervention and observation more and more focused and customized. This is a dynamic which is integral to a 10 day schedule whereby the advisors also begin to understand, based on the – cultural background – a pattern of social aspects – and the collective exposure and direction which the students have till their interview, that the pace of the activity can be re-adjusted by breaking up the interview and the final report documentation schedule.

Day 9

Day 9 therefore was spent in collating the remaining few reports which were mailed to Mr. Abhay Nair who had them formatted according to the Talent ScoreCard and sent back to Abdul for print and student folder creation. Our tech-troubleshooting issues were pleasantly resolved by Imran, who works on other projects with Ajmal Foundation and came forward to extend his support.

In the evening, Gayatri and I were led to Maryam Ajmal College for a closing session and report distribution.

Students receiving their individualisedTalent ScoreCard@ CEC Hojai, Assam

Dr. Mazumdar, who had been coordinating in Dr. Azad’s absence, who was now traveling, had made well-thought out arrangements for this evening.

The vehicle we were taken in had 3 other staff ladies to make us feel comfortable while traveling at night. At the college, we were greeted by the college principal, Dr. Shamim Begum, a genuinely delightful person and wonderfully dedicated to her students. As Gayatri and I walked into the main hall, we found all the 50 students get up from their seats and echo a greeting in chorus, which was most energizing for us to say the final right things and close the activity.

As per Ms. Gayatri Derasari who comes in with over 12 years of experience in Learning & Development, “The structure of the activity has created a thinking environment for the students to acquire career related awareness and therefore consciously discover their own interest and abilities. This is an exciting new step towards supporting students to make informed and contemporary career decisions which will have a lifelong impact.”
Mr. Khasrul Isalm, the Manager at Ajmal Foundation, who was away at another location to attend to work, hurried to make it back in time and be a part of this report distribution ceremony.

There were teachers and principals from other colleges as well who interacted with us with great interest and enthusiasm to further discover how they can internalize such a student guiding process.

Post the report explanation & distribution, students volunteered to take the stage and share their experience of Institutional Excellence Forum’s Talent Spotting and Competency Mapping activity.

This was fun, truthfully done and extremely validating for both IEF and Ajmal Foundation.

After the student testimonials, Mr. Khasrul Isalm, Dr. Mazumdar and Dr. Begum took turns to acknowledge and further build upon Gayatri’s and my closing thoughts on how students need to consciously make an effort to discover their career direction by becoming ‘information hungry’ and using the internet in a guided manner to prepare themselves for the future. During the interviews, this was a key aspect which was addressed. Students were asked to use the break between examinations and next session to collaborate with an elder from their family and research on the internet about various career and preparation options, gaining more confidence to realize their inherent talent, interest and abilities.

Acknowledgement by Dr. Mazumdar and Dr. Begum and Students

The Road Ahead

Day 10 is when we flew back to Delhi with warm greetings, gratitude, presents and memories.5 months of active work both at the backend and the front end by Institutional Excellence Forum with Ajmal Foundation’s wonderful support, tells us that synergies exist and can be leveraged upon to produce results if we tap into them for the right reason, for the right purpose and with the right intention to bring about a positive change in the current student landscape in our country.

At IEF, building the base for ‘making India a better-informed career hub’ could not have been achieved without Ajmal Foundation’s support and attentiveness to detail.

Career Advisory Sessions covered 50 students out of the total 842 from 10 senior secondary schools in 10 days

To better understand how Ajmal Foundation an Institutional Excellence Forum have collaborated on this journey, it will be helpful to know that a dynamic framework of the Career Excellence Centre (CEC)’s annual activities called the Activity Calendar has been mutually identified and agreed upon to generate the Common Activity Calendar. The CEC Activity Calendar has thus been aligned given the challenges within the school schedules and the much-needed interventions which students require to build a vision for their career based on their inherent talent, interest and abilities.

At a larger level, Institutional Excellence Forum envisions the manner in which such a chain of interventions can become one whole sustainable program.

Considering that the interventions have been ideated, designed, documented and interpreted from multiple perspectives such as contextualizing the program according to district needs, gender and age-group specifics, science/arts/commerce related aspirations &perceptions and familial/rural/urban influences; there is enough and more relevance created for the local adaptation of the program inviting greater inclusion of local talent.

By empowering local teachers and staff through training and skill upgrade methods, the program can become both sustainable and scalable. This would not only create more job roles for teachers to acquire a more modern and current need based experience but also open multiple channels for students to be supported, guided and nurtured based on their Aptitude along with the Academic focus.

Beginning with the Principal’s Roundtable to discuss and formalize the intent of IEF’s Excellence agenda, better equipping the teachers through Mentorship & Excellence Workshop to understand how students require greater support at the secondary level and the impact creation through Student Talent Assessment, Institutional Excellence Forum with Ajmal Foundation’s immense on-ground support has stayed on track to deliver on the Activity Calendar, making the way forward in reality …a way forward!

The Author

Arti Ahluwalia,
The author is Head-Alliances, of Institutional Excellence Forum