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Chennai: Two Weeks

On Friday, 26th August 2019 I arrived in Chennai on a calm afternoon. After finishing my last exam I would take a one weekend semester break to start my academic year 2019/2020 as an exchange student in the physics department of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. The weekend was spent sleeping, playing my first game of Ultimate Frisbee at the Besant Nagar beach and then struggling with Indian bureaucracy. After spending some afternoons with forms and waiting in registration offices, this was done and I could spend more time studying and playing frisbee with my fellow students. When I needed time for myself I went running through the tropical forest on the campus, with my contemplative routine only being interrupted by deer, black bucks or monkeys crossing the street.

— Paragraph with explanation added 9/8/2019

The campus itself is incredible, at least from the perspective of someone who is not used to universities being small towns on their own and surely when you enter from the outside everyday chaos of one of India’s biggest cities. Almost everyone uses a bicycle to get around the campus. The place itself being a wildlife habitat, one is frequently made aware of the fact that respect should be paid to the animals while living in their world instead of making the animals adjust their paths to the human world. Therefore the access to many areas is restricted to leave the animals with spaces to retreat to and this rule is accepted by everyone. The campus has a huge natural wastewater treatment pond to take care of all the sewage from within the university. The campus is not perfect nature but seems like a model of how humans can live at peace with the environment having their space to build houses, spend time doing amazing research and make the world a better place for humans while leaving parts of it a wild area for animals to roam around as they have done it before homo sapiens entered their habitats.

— End of added paragraph

After the first days of being completely new to the university the different classes started feeling like a pleasant routine more and more. Many lectures are held more as a debate between the professor and the students and real commitment counts more than just being physically present and snoring in the last seating row. Today we finally had an official introductory meeting with the director of IIT Madras and the dean of international affairs. While the meeting itself was slightly awkward with European student’s perspectives on the world clashing with those of far-traveled Indian scientists, the debate among the students that evolved after the assembly was really inspiring and brought together more of the individual backgrounds of the students and made them appear to me less like a bunch of spoiled white college kids. I had made also made a statement in the meeting, stressing the positive environmentally considerate atmosphere on the campus, maybe not a bad message, but missing out a lot of way more important things that IIT Madras is about. So I felt the need to amend what I said and wrote an email to the director, partially for myself, partially to let him know that we aren’t just German college boys and girls on an adventure trip:

Dear Mr. Prof. Ramamurthy,

after having lined out only a tiny aspect of environmental protection and social responsibility in my statement this afternoon I would like to amend it by a few aspects for the sake of a more comprehensive feedback and also for the sake of my conscience since I do not like incomplete statements. Whether Indian or non-Indian, I believe that all students receiving an academic education at IIT Madras can deem themselves privileged. Especially as foreigners we should be grateful that the Indian people uses a share of the vast resources invested into the IITs to teach and accommodate international students at the same conditions as Indian students. For everyone living on this campus is living a positive utopia, not only for India but also for the rest of the world. Our professors see us as individual personalities, we can always ask for more explanation and above all this the learning process takes place in a safe space where race, gender, religion and political conviction matter only as little as possible, speaking of not at all would be a true utopia. When I was urged to talk about the hostels, of course in a direct comparison I would have to state that the level of comfort is lower than what German students are used to and that we in return appreciate the community sports facilities. But actually this is not so essential. Together with food supply from the messes we are provided with everything that we need to focus on our everyday studies, which is the only thing that matters here. Good ideas have not been developed when people were sitting on a comfortable sofa watching a movie on a big flat screen in an AC-equipped living room.

Speaking about my experience of the first weeks, IIT Madras is all about learning. For some Indian students coming from families with maids and other aides doing their everyday household tasks, the required autonomy will be new and an important step of becoming an adult. For some European students used to living in art-deco apartments with a balcony and a coffee machine in the kitchen, a simple hostel room might feel harsh. Of course as a student of TU Dresden I have seen laboratories with less people working there and more uniform furniture. But has science ever been about looking at expensive equipment while sipping coffee and waiting for work to do itself? IIT Madras is the perfect place to learn becoming a true scientist who understands his or her work from the very first idea to the last phrase of the publication because one has to earn their results and at the same time it becomes clear especially to the European students that skill and success are not connected or should not be connected to things such as monetary wealth or the right accent of one’s spoken language but be the product of informed and intelligent thinking and the eagerness to do things a little better and smarter every day.

We will all share the experience that campus life is a new era, requiring us to adjust, work hard to reach the goals put up for us and finally allowing us to take with us the experience of having grown up to the standards we were confronted with, being able to set our own rules for our future lives. We will be able to decide on our own to drive a SUV or not and we will be able to consciously allow ourselves to long for one if nobody in our family has ever owned one before – a response which I appreciated from you and which pinpoints the dynamics of our world that can be observed while studying in Chennai with open eyes not only for the academic but also the social aspects of being granted access to superior education that allows IITM alumni to take powerful positions in economic and social life.

I do hope that we will have the opportunity to share our feedback with you when we come to the end of the stay and have time to speak about more essential things than tiny hostel rooms and a small variety of food being served in the canteens.

Thank you for hosting us here.

Yours,

Jakob Lindenthal

Update 09-08-2019

I received a reply from Prof. Ramamurthi in which he expressed his goodwill towards my statement and stressed that spending a semester abroad can in fact be very beneficial for those who allow their „eyes, ears and minds“ to be open.

This personal commitment of the scientists and professors at IITM is one of the things that I hoped to find here and the certainty is already emerging that my hope was not in vain. I will try my best to keep my future feedback relevant and make it worth being listened to so that the sincere interest our professors take in me as a student will not be disappointed but rewarded with discussion, answers and enlightenment.

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