Saturday, December 06, 2003

From sehri to bhangra blast at MIT

From sehri to bhangra blast at MIT

By Anjum Niaz

MIT has none of the classical elegance of Harvard's age-old snobbery. Instead, its relatively new universe is encapsulated in the 'Infinite Corridor', ranking MIT as one of the top schools in the US.

On this Indian summer day - so languorously porous that the geeks at the mighty MIT swarming the outdoors can give a casual visitor the wrong kind of ideas about their intellectual machismo and superior genes that has to date produced 57 Nobel laureates alone - brown faces, the whites seem to be missing, dot the brilliance of the academic landscape.

On this fun afternoon, the girls - svelte and mostly Indian, float past in pencil high heels and sexy ethnic wear fashioned on the boutiques of Bollywood rather than the mass produced clothier giants of America. And the men, some of them Sikh lads, saunter across arm-in-arm with their significant other, speaking with a twang yet donning unmistakable Indian raiment. They are the American-born desis.

My desperate eye searches for a Pakistani face. But none is there - or so I think. As if mesmerized by the swirl of colour and activity around, I heedlessly follow the herd, ending up in front of the auditorium only to find that there is a 'Bhangra blast' being sponsored by the MIT Indian student body.

Hunkered down are a group of four young idlers sitting on the sidelines just enjoying the tamasha, they catch my eye for they certainly are not part of the circus. And how? Heavens! You can tell that 'Made in India' look from miles apart. They have lugged their wardrobes with them. The accent, not to miss the get-up is so un-American. But their IQ has brought them here.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology - mere miles away from Harvard in Cambridge, has none of the pizzazz, nor the classical elegance of Harvard's age-old snobbery. Instead, its relatively new universe is encapsulated in the "Infinite Corridor" as it is called that houses ground-breaking laboratories of innovation, ranking MIT as one of the top schools in math, physics, economics and computer science.

Eventually, I run into Sana Mirza. With a hijab, she's got to be Pakistani, I intuit. "Oh, you should have come to our sehri event, we served halwa puri, chatpatay cholay, omelettes and parathay and chai," she immediately enthuses when I talk of the Bhangra bash and wonder where the Pakistani student body is. "We're pretty active here."

Bubbling with pride, she walks me to the new computer science building where she studies. "It's fantastic, isn't it? As if an earthquake has hit it!" I just stare at the folded facade crumpled with blue and yellow and what have you. The architecture is curiously bizarre but beauty, I guess, lies in the eye of the beholder."MIT is very open and welcomes anybody who cares to come in and look around its campus," says Jahanzeb Noor, another Pakistani.

That's so correct! I have been roaming the "Infinite Corridor" for an hour, peeping into the mysterious glass rooms that seize my fancy, stopped and gawked at students working with glass tubes or navigating the mouse on their monitors, no one wondered what I am on to. This feeling of freedom - academic, social and communal - is what makes Jahanzeb, 21, declare that "truly, MIT is the best!"

Adeem Usman, former president of PAKSMIT (Pakistani Students' Society at MIT) has worked hard to keep their identity separate from the Indians despite being hugely outnumbered. "After 9/11, we had to present a positive view of Pakistan on the campus. Our best effort was to organize a Pakistan Week, a first in MIT's history!"

As for academic excellence: "Pakistanis have, masha-Allah outperformed their peers from other countries. Many have graduated with straight-A GPAs (grade point average) Bottom of Form 0 and have ranked top of their class." Despite the "tortuous requirements of MIT course work and schedule" he opines, "I guess the lot that ends up at MIT has a mindset that thrives under such challenges."

But he would like more of his compatriots to come here. The reason they don't: "Apart from the obvious shortcomings in our education system, there's a lack of both awareness (about available higher-education opportunities in US) and suitable guidance (on application process to prestigious US universities) to students back home."

It was one year ago when MIT took the unprecedented plunge into baring itself to the world! It opened up its doors to anyone with a computer and with a vicarious interest to become a voyeur and travel through cyberspace and enter any classroom, examine any research, hear any teacher's instruction that till a year ago was the sole prerogative of on-the-ground student at MIT. The verisimilitude of academic pursuits can now blaze wondrous trails, leading to a treasure trove for those - even in the boondocks of Pakistan - who can virtually make MIT their altar of higher learning.

MIT Open Course Ware (OCW) makes the course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all MIT's undergraduate and graduate subjects - 500 in all! - available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world - to educators, students and self-learners alike. "This initiative continues the tradition at MIT, and in American higher education, of open dissemination of educational materials, philosophy and modes of thought, and will help lead to fundamental changes in the way colleges and universities utilize the Web as a vehicle for education," says its president.

"The big bang in the knowledge universe" - that's the name given to the distance/e-learning environment. MIT's values of excellence, innovation and leadership has pulled Phil Reeves, a Brit, to hang around for the last seven years doing research, as has the three French doctoral students whom I meet. Grudgingly they concede: "France is nowhere close to what MIT is doing."

Pakistan, too, has hit the honour roll with Zeeshan Hassan Syed bagging the prize for the 'Best Master's Thesis at MIT', and becoming one of the few in MIT's history to simultaneously win the 'Best Research Award', besides the 'Technovators Award' for the most outstanding innovator in computer science!

Asfandyar Qureshi has received a commendation for his performance in the introductory computer science class at MIT, "one of the toughest courses around". Nominated by Tau Beta Pi and Eta Kappa Nu for membership, he's scheduled to once again graduate a year ahead of his class, while maintaining a near-perfect GPA.

And Sarfraz Khurshid: Selected for the NASA Ames Summer Research Programme, he received the Distinguished Paper Award by ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) - one of the world's leading computer societies. "He has been offered faculty positions at both UT Austin and Imperial College, UK," I am duly informed.

"We continue to hope that in the near future, a Pakistani may do us proud by becoming part of the faculty at MIT," concludes Adeem.

But back at the "Infinite Corridor" I skim a labyrinth of notices pinned carelessly in varying colours and sagely hiss to myself that the next sea change that MIT will experience will be courtesy the Indian diaspora! Last month alone, MIT gyrated to the Natyanjali classical dance; sang to "Hindustani Vocal" made up of gaana bajana; round-tabled the 'Asian diasporas and new transnational cultures'; heard filmmaker Mira Nair; crooned to the saffron-robed tilak Mithas players of saxophone, violin and thavil; and even heard Pulitzer awardee Jhumpa Lahiri talk of her new book, The Namesake.

As I leave New England to return home, I scour my copy of the USA Today and bang there is the graph that shows countries with the highest number of students coming to the US.

First on the list is India - 74,600 this year alone!

I could have told you that without even reading the news item: The fidelity of the naked eye versus number crunching is still the truest.

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