Empowered by my Education
Modern science has led us to adopt a reductionist approach whereby we analyse and scale down every object and experience to its micro components. This overpowering insistence on fragmentation has deemed education to be limited to the head. So while the Doctorate Degree at the end of a three-year long journey at the esteemed Johns Hopkins University in the year 2015 validates my credentials in the Mind, Brain and Teaching specialization, it fails to capture the implicit, profound lessons and trivializes the stages in my metamorphosis. While this certificate highlights the outcome, it fails to give credence to the process and the varied nuances. While it is an objective assessment of my achievement, it overlooks my subjective experiences. As a result, this necessitated a meticulous recording of the intricacies to unveil the beauty that lays concealed behind the black capes on our graduation day!
Reframing my Approach:
My narrow perceptions defined by decades of conditioning had led me to conceive of education as confined to a campus, within the four walls of a classroom, with real-time interaction with peers and face-to-face dialogues with professors. My academic experiences for the first 22 years of my life were limited to the factory model of education with stacked up chairs in designated rows and columns. The chalk and talk method was predominant in the classroom as teachers assumed the role of a sage on a stage. Intellectual superiority was equated to one’s capacity for rote memorization and hoarding knowledge was the key to success. We all succumbed to the popular notion, “Knowledge is King!” We were convinced that our lives had the propensity to be dissected such that the mind and logic were central in education while emotions were dismissed as inconsequential. The behaviourist principles of classical and operant conditioning were employed for classroom management to ensure discipline. The online doctorate degree at Johns Hopkins University shattered all my previously held conceptions of learning and redefined the purpose, means and tools in education.
The online format adopted by Johns Hopkins Department of Education was revolutionary given that educators across the globe were yet confined by physical spaces, curriculums and time. Moreover, conceptualizing learning beyond proximity within a classroom was not only convenient, but also inclusive and aligned to the demands of the 21st century. Furthermore, it served to intensify student equity, engagement, empowerment and enrichment through the various courses. The courses ensured student equity as it provided equal access to all resources, instructions, curriculum and assessments. The asynchronous teaching tools provided flexibility of time which allowed students across the globe to partake in the program without restrictions of time zones. As a result, I was able to sweat and slave at my full time teaching job while going through the various courses in the program. The rich diversity of students were celebrated and valued as manifestations of shared creativity. In addition, student engagement was highlighted through the weekly discussion boards and group assignments. Interacting with peers across the world awakened me to embrace the true essence of global empathy as I was given several opportunities to witness, understand and incorporate different points of view.
In addition, it created the fertile spaces for empowering learners in the process while providing the right blend of mentorship and guidance along the way. The role of the student was not limited to passively attending lectures but demanded a more active stance that included creating their own truth based on the content, personal experience, and contextual evidence leading to a fresh perspective. This afforded me the opportunity for action research as I was motivated to evaluate, examine and study problems within my context based on understandings derived from ongoing courses. It also led me to discard my earlier notion that education equates assessment and broadened the scope of learning to transference in the real world. It made clear that a globally accepted concept had different local connotations, each bound by particular contexts and cultures. As a result, the need for sense making was more valuable than mere adoption of concepts. Lastly, it also served to enrich our experiences by providing a wide range of resources, including both print and visual content that served as valuable stimulus.
While undertaking the first course, I printed all the notes and materials as I was incompetent with reading online. However, I soon realized that it would be impossible to ride out the courses without mastering the digital platform. Yet, while I was drowning under the stacks of research articles, I was also sharpening my rate of reading as well as other skills. In the first year, I would often need to read an article several times. Overtime, I became adept at skimming and scanning and my comprehension skills grew exponentially. Furthermore, my reading pace increased dramatically and this expanded my horizons outside the course as well. In order to ensure ease of accessibility to research articles while framing my thesis, I also needed to sharpen my executive functioning skills. I experimented repeatedly and arrived at new modes of planning, organizing and self-regulating. In order to survive the harsh rigor of the program, I had to train myself to ignore distractions and resist temptations. In my endeavour to be efficient, I mobilized my capacity for inhibitory control and this proved to be my biggest gift. I became cognizant of all the things that deplete me and those that nourish me. I slowly began to discard all that was draining my life force and prioritized my time, energy and attention.
Besides reading and executive functioning skills, the program helped me refine my writing skills immensely. The meticulous and timely feedback on my writing from my advisor led me to appreciate the finer aspects and the nuances that I would otherwise disregard. The relentless revisions led me to adopt cognitive flexibility as the norm rather than exception. I learned that the key to developing a compelling argument lies in one’s ability to validate claims, refute counterclaims and present ideas succinctly. As I ceaselessly refined my work by administering tests and interviews, collecting further evidence, challenging and defending assertions and providing evidence, my facilities for analysing content were being polished. Simultaneously, I developed an inquiring mind as I inspected and scrutinized every detail without succumbing to mere acceptance or negligence. As I toiled to write on a daily basis, I also exercised my muscle for endurance and sophistication.
Courage & Perseverance:
I considered the willingness to embark on a three-year long and arduous online doctorate journey, while simultaneously holding a full-time leadership position in a school that served students with special needs, mothering a young child, managing an extended joint family, and volunteering in a Buddhist-based community organization an act of determination and courage. Nelson Mandela quotes, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Little did I know that the admission procedure and commitment to the program was one of the smallest hills I had climbed. Over the three years, I encountered massive alpines, each presenting novel challenges, incumbent hazards and multifarious barricades. I was awakened to the full potential of the term ‘grit’ as I traversed through this route. I soon figured out that acceptance is easy, but endurance is difficult. Pushing ahead relentlessly when one is constantly encountering failure and setback requires increasingly polishing one’s strength and resolve. After all, a river cuts through a rock not because of its power, but its persistence. Each semester taught me to embody the spirit of water and flow ceaselessly regardless of hurdles, both within and without! The former American football cornerback, Sean Smith shared, “Consistency is more powerful than intensity.” Today, two years after completion of the course, I continue to value the tenacity and stamina I harnessed during the three years of the program. I have realized that showing up for oneself on a daily basis is in itself an act of courage. The award winning author, Barry Finlay, rightly asserts, “Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.”
Yet, perseverance in the face of adversity is fatiguing. I was bombarded with conflicting forces that were constantly changing due to forces, both external and internal! I was struggling to make sense of the penetrating convergence of my thoughts, emotions, energy levels, and the ever transient shifts in my moods and desires. Holding this dynamic inner world while navigating the external stimuli was demanding and leaving me worn out! The torment gained momentum in my strife for stability and security! I seeked answers from the skies above and earth below! I was unable to focus on my assignments and burned the midnight oil to meet deadlines. After a year into the program, when I was on the brink of throwing in the towel, I was forced to re-evaluate my intent and motive for this degree.
Our lives are interwoven in a complex and intricate web of connections as nothing exists in isolation. Hence, the impact of one’s successes and failures are not limited to the individual but rather creates ripples beyond boundaries. It dawned on me that I had taken my privilege for granted and I should instead use it for the larger goal of value creation of the whole. I soon relinquished the narrow definition of success as defined by feelings of personal accomplishments and endorsed a grander perspective. I concluded that completing the program was imperative so that the fresh surge of wisdom and courage could be used to stimulate creative endeavours for the collective! This perspective discharged the mounting pressure of performance bounded by the need for recognition. It permitted me to release the self-imposed weights on my shoulders and provided a lightness of being. As I shifted the focus from the individual to the entire ecosystem, I was awakened to embody the true essence of the Gestalt principle — ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts!’ Further, this disengagement from the self and connection to the whole led to a surge of energy, dynamism and creativity.
The clarity and confidence of one’s vision provides the fuel to sail through the detours and deviations that are encountered on the journey. One needs to see the forest and not get lost in the trees. As I refused to partake in the internal battle of shame versus recognition and linked my intention to a higher vision, the capacity to conquer my handicaps became available. I started to witness the breakdowns and disturbances without identifying with them. I chose to observe without judgement and attend without attachment. While the anguish did not cease immediately, it surely gave me the courage to move ahead. In the tug of war between grit and surrender, I stumbled upon the uncharted land of effortlessness, where the process was detached from the product. As I relinquished the quest of effectiveness, my apprehension and worries dissolved. I was motivated to serve and create value through this course, which led me to explore innovative solutions. In sum, the only way I was able to get to the other side was by shifting the obsession from “me” to “we” and the stance from the ‘individual’ to the ‘collective.
Just as plastic can be moulded into myriad sizes and shapes, the program mandated that I be flexible and willing to consistently adopt new positions. My earlier tendency to clutch and cling, resist change and stay comfortable with the known was put to test repeatedly until I conceded and surrendered to the beauty of the unknown. Engaging in weekly discussions with peers, drowning in heaps of research articles and revising my research question repeatedly forced me to release predictability and be supple in my approach. The courses required me to attend to varying styles, methods and characteristics and stay curious and seeking. Just like each facet of the prism presents its beauty, I began to appreciate the wide variance of perspectives presented in conversations with peers. This continuous practice of discarding, confronting and refining my views led me to understand that growth was a process and not a destination! The repeated reframing of the research question impelled me to believe that knowledge is never fixed but steadily evolving. Moreover, staying open to a realm of infinite possibilities and vulnerable to constant changes made me appreciate the humility required to be adaptable.
Also, the facilitators of the program walked the talk as they too embodied the same level of flexibility that was demanded of the students. Due to new technologies, I was provided with the option of completing the entire program online, including defending my dissertation. This clearly demonstrated that every plan, structure and approach must be malleable based on capacity, time and space, rather than being stubbornly attached to earlier conceptualizations. It also encapsulated the hallmark of a leader as one who employs flexibility to pursue changes with the goal of accommodating and empowering people.
My initial failures with the coursework accentuated the feelings of inadequacy and propelled me into a state of stress, helplessness and unease. While I was cognizant with Carol Dweck’s pioneering work on mindsets and knew that Dweck had confirmed her research findings that people could cultivate their skills, talents, interests and aptitude through effort and deliberate practice, I yet fell into the trap of a “fixed mindset”. I resorted to dichotomize the world into stark contradictions, where duality reigned existence! I began to deem intelligence and creative ability as treasured gifts delivered to an exclusive lot at birth. Consequently, I thought that success was a manifestation of these latent competencies and not potentially attainable by the majority (including me). In an attempt to deal with the bouts of lowered self-esteem, I sought to urgently validate myself, my capability and my skills. Yet, the strain soon infiltrated every area of my life — my relationships, my health and my work!
The father of my nation (India), Mahatma Gandhi, rightly claimed, “The only devils in the world are those running around in our hearts. That is where the battle should be fought.” I was engaged in a persistent battle with the inner demons of doubt, despair and frustration. Like a container with a bottomless pit, I found it increasingly difficult to sustain as my energy and life force were completely sapped! Yet, the storms continued to buffett and I was tossed around mercilessly into the world of hell where I was enveloped by feelings of self-loathing and cynicism. My mentor, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, the President of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), explains, “Either we advance or we retreat; there is no middle ground. Either we cringe in fear and surrender to the devilish functions, the negativity in our own lives, or we challenge this negativity and deepen our conviction in faith. This difference in resolve determines everything” (The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 167). Just like the iron needs strong heat to become a fine sword and the phoenix must burn to rise from its own ashes, I understood that obstacles provided the greatest opportunity! I could perish under the pressure of these trials and tribulations or use them as springboards to leap further ahead. The unbearable anguish of being defeated spurred me to take responsibility as I pledged to overcome my own weakness. It is only by mustering the force of inner will and determination that one can use their challenges as a catalyst for positive change. After all the pure white lotus rises from the waters of a muddy pond, not clear waters!
Hence, in order to sustain the rigour of the courses, I was compelled to confront and triumph over feelings of resignation and powerlessness while invoking the courage to initiate action. I changed the “self-talk” player in my head from the critical, harsh, condemning voice to that of a nurturing, gentle, affectionate provider. I sought to harness my inner resources and strength rather than being crushed by the overpowering weight of my fear. I understood that striving for perfectionism is an illusion as ‘perfect’ does not exist. In this attempt to become ‘perfect’, I had cultivated the ripe opportunities to experience shame, guilt and judgement. Paul Hewitt, in the book, “Perfectionism”, likens the inner critic to “a nasty adult beating the crap out of a tiny child.” I knew that while I may strive to be my best, there is no ‘best’ that I could strive to be! I understood that I could spend a lifetime trying to fit into a box only to later figure that the box itself was an illusion! Rather, I could engage in a process of growth and advancement and use my own life as the yardstick rather than endeavor to arrive at a destination (of perfectionism) that is elusive. After all, evolution is not about arriving but constantly becoming.
Sir Edmund Hillary stated, “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” The EdD program led me to take the journey from knowledge to wisdom, from lack to abundance, from fear to faith and from victim to victor. Just like a burning incense imbues our clothing with its fragrance, the inconspicuous benefits of this reformatory mindset continues to pervade all facets of my life. I now appreciate the plights, puzzles and perplexities of life with grace. More importantly, it taught me to yank out the feelings of “I am a failure” from the roots and value my own inherent capacity and potential. It taught me to appreciate the wholeness of my being, including my flaws, my defeats, my accomplishments and hold myself in high esteem. It showed me that the problem and the solution always rested in the same space — the space between our ears! All we need is a new set of lenses! I gathered that the true essence of empowerment lies in winning over myself rather than craving for acclaim and recognition. It coerced me to shift from a ‘judge-and-be-judged’ framework to a ‘lean-and-help-learn’ framework as highlighted by Dweck in her work on mindsets. Lastly, I figured that faith is not mere optimism but a muscle that needs to be strengthened consistently and diligently. Hence, it requires time, effort and support.
Just like the bud blooms into the flower under the right conditions, each human has been endowed with qualities and abilities that lay dormant unless harnessed by the right supporting factors, including circumstances and people. The African philosophy of “ubuntu” is based on the premise “I am only because we are” and recognizes that the self is shaped by relationships with other people. While this lies in stark contradiction to the rampant individualism that defines our current realities, it recognizes the beauty in the interconnectedness of life. I was able to get through each semester due to the contribution of several individuals.
The engagement with peers during the courses was rooted in a strength-based approach, where the strength of each member was harnessed to shatter barriers and challenge limitations. As a result, each one is lifted to new realms of being so that access to areas that were previously inaccessible were then available. The group became a catalyst to further individual potential. Then the combined individual potential was brought back to create higher forms of expression in the group. As I indulged in group assignments and was able to manifest this cyclical flow between the individual and the group, I witnessed a plethora of revelations and insights! It dawned on me that collaboration was distinct from competition as it favored a win-win approach for all parties involved. Collaboration gives credence to every human being and is based on the spirit of dignity and respect. It acknowledges the ingrained capacity of the human spirit to extend beyond the perceived limits of our physical senses. In the bargain, it revealed the true purpose of the community and the need for interaction.
Just as a fire needs wood to keep burning, I needed my family to help me sustain the three year program. My husband, daughter, mother and in-laws unceasingly indulged me regardless of my rapid movements across various peaks and valleys. My family continued to embrace me even when I lashed out mercilessly, wept uncontrollably, retreated from several responsibilities and stayed immersed into my laptop screen. Just like a pillar supports the entire structure, my family stayed rooted and firm while I swayed in different directions with every passing storm.
Further, my advisor, Dr Bryant stayed resolutely beside me as she relentlessly mentored me to pursue excellence. Her sincere and committed efforts to foster the best in me kept the flame burning and led me to strive vigorously as well. Just as Rita Pierson, in her famous TED talk says, “Every kid needs a champion”, I was fortunate to have a teacher who refused to give up on me and nourished me to regard every step as a learning opportunity. In addition, there were countless well-wishers and friends who nourished me in myriad ways to revive my spirit and rekindle my lost morale. Hence, while this degree is awarded to a single individual (me), the names of countless others lay hidden in the background.
In sum, I believe my experience and lessons from the Doctoral of Education program at Johns Hopkins University were profound, life transforming and value creating! It has not only allowed me to awaken to the boundless, inherent potential of my life but also nurtured me to share that treasure with others. In the process, the skills for adaptability, resilience, learning how to learn, perseverance, curiosity, problem solving, collaboration and value creation were also harnessed. I conceived certain phrases in the course that served as catalysts to sustain me. They are;
- Persevere or Perish!
- Progress equals Perseverance!
- Eradicate the Ego!
- Find the Pearls in the Perils!
- Hop across the Hurles!
- Cultivate Compassion (for self and others)!
- Courage is Contagious!
- Unflagging Faith is Foremost!
- Consistent conviction (in self) is the key to commitment!
These taglines have continued to inspire me to thrive in the midst of challenging circumstances. Recently, when the world was hit by the largest pandemic and we witnessed a global disruption across all realms of our existence, these lines served as the light at the end of the darkest tunnel and as a candle in the dark. In the midst of the deadly coronavirus, I knew I had to choose between opening my life to renewed hope and operate from a space of courage, compassion and patience or submerge below the pressures of the times and drown into the worlds of fear, hell and anger. During my 3 year journey at JHU, I had witnessed this space of absolute disruption at several instances. Just like the principle of yin and yang demonstrates the beauty in contradictory opposites, the program trained me to become comfortable in the midst of tension created by opposing forces. Everything I had deemed impossible or unsurmountable was put to test until I could conquer all my self-limiting indulgences. It equipped me with the strength to remain in the eye of the storm, find my center and balance even though everything was whirling around me. In the bargain, the courses afforded me the opportunity to witness the boundless and infinite potential of my own life! Just as Hugh Walpole writes in his book, ‘Fortitude’, “It isn’t the life that matters, it’s the courage you bring to it!”