17-Year-Old ‘Unschooled’ Malvika Raj Joshi Makes It To MIT
This is a story about a teenager’s self-belief and a mother’s conviction to break typecasts.
Breaking norms that place undue advantage on good marks and degrees, Malvika Raj Joshi, a 17-year-old teenager from Mumbai, who dropped out of formal schooling at the age of 12 , has secured a placed in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) purely based on her computer programming talent.
Malvika who never passed 10th or 12th has landed an MIT scholarship, as she is pursuing her Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree by virtue of being a three-time medal winner (two silver and a bronze) at International Olympiad of Informatics (IOI) or commonly known as Programming Olympiad. A talented programmer, she wants to pursue research work in computer science.
MIT, with five schools and one college which contain a total of 34 departments, is often referred to as among the world’s top universities. The Institute is traditionally known for its research and education in the physical sciences and engineering, and more recently in biology, economics, linguistics, and management as well. The MIT also has a provision for accepting students who are medal winners at various Olympiads (Maths, Physics or Computer).
It was Chris Peterson, assistant director of admission at MIT who contacted Malvika via email and advised her to apply to the MIT. “When I started unschooling, that was 4 years back, I explored many different subjects. Programming was one of them. I found programming interesting and I used to give more time to it than to other subjects, so, I started liking it at that time,” she says.
Elite Indian institute like IIT, which has strict rules that one needs to pass class XII exams to get admission made it more difficult for Malvika to get in.
Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) was the only institute where she got admission where she enrolled into MSc level course as her knowledge was on par with BSc standard.
“There is absolutely no question that Malvika’s admission to MIT is based on her superlative achievements at IOI. It is a credit to MIT’s flexibility that they can offer admission to a student who demonstrates excellent intellectual potential despite having no formal high school credentials,” says CMI’s Madhavan Mukund, who is also National Co-ordinator of Indian Computing Olympiad.
However, Malvika is not a product of the system but despite it, Madhavan cleared.
“This is possible only for a student whose academic achievements are outstanding, which is the case with Malvika’s performance at IOI,” he has a word of caution.
So, when did it all start? This young Mumbai girl’s interesting story began about four years ago when her mother Supriya took an unbelievably tough decision by pulling Malvika out of school.
At that time, Malvika was in class VII at Dadar Parsee Youth Assembly School. It was stress and an increasing sense of unhappiness during her daughters’ school days that led Supriya to take such an unconventional decision. Explaining her decision, Supriya says, “We are a middle class family. Malvika was doing well in school but somehow I felt that my children (she has younger daughter Radha) need to be happy. Happiness is more important than conventional knowledge.”
“I was working with an NGO that takes care of cancer patients. I would see students who are in 8th or 9th standard being affected by cancer. It affected me deeply and I decided that my daughters need to be happy.”
“The decision no way was an easy one,” she added.
“In India, people are still not very aware about the term “home schooled” or “unschooled” as it is commonly referred.
It also took some time to convince Malvika’s father Raj, an engineer who runs his own business.
“My husband Raj wasn’t convinced initially as it was a risky proposition. The kids won’t have a 10th or 12th standard certificate and there was bound to be fear. I quit my NGO job and designed an academic curriculum for Malvika. I created a simulation (classroom like situation) at home. The confidence I had as a mother was that I am capable of imparting knowledge in my daughter’s.”
“And it worked,” Supriya said.
“Suddenly I saw that my daughter was so happy. She was learning more than ever –from the time she woke up to the time she was off to sleep. Knowledge became a passion,” the proud mother recalls.
For three consecutive years, she was among the top four students who represented India at the Programming Olympiad.
Madhavan, who prepared Malvika for all three Olympiads, spoke about her brilliance.
“During the past three years she spent extensive periods at CMI acquiring the background in mathematics and algorithms that she needed to excel at Informatics Olympiad. As part of this training for IOI, she had to fill in unexpected gaps in her education arising from the fact that she had not been formally enrolled in school,” Malvika’s mother said.
“For instance, she had never studied matrices. She was never intimidated even when faced with a mountain of things to learn, and went about achieving her goals very methodically.”
Supriya rued the undue importance given to marks, qualifications and degrees. “It really weighs down the students. Children are not meant to feel so emotionally and physically fatigued,” she said. “Therefore, I made the decision to take my daughters out of school, and instead expose them to as much worldly knowledge as possible,” she said.
Malvika’s journey to MIT was not an easy one, cautioned Supriya. “I don’t want to misguide other students and parents into believing that pulling their children out of the education system is the key to success.”
When questioned if more parents want to know about her daughter, Supriya laughs as she says, “They are all interested in knowing how to get into MIT. I just tell them that we never aimed for her admission in MIT. I tell parents to understand what their children like.”