Pursuit of Opportunity: Venkat Panchapakesan Memorial Scholarship — Part 3

It has been quite some time since I last updated you about my progress with the application. My semester end exams were going on, and after that I was busy with a wonderful program for students that FOSSMEC , the Open Source community of Model Engineering College, was organizing. So now that the year is finished, here is my blog entry for Venkat Pachapakesan Memorial Scholarship application process.

The deadline for the application was closing in, and my thoughts about what to write were developing.To speak of my actions, I love productivity enhancements ideas, and wrote an article about what I did in this regard back in November 2017. The idea was quite straightforward, to use sophisticated chatbots that can understand the students interests and find relevant support to boost the student forward in academics. The challenge now was to pen my thoughts down and write a noteworthy application for the same idea.

Penning my ideas

Rethink Foundation has been my backbone through this journey. They have a lot of relevant content in their Wiki, YouTube channel, subreddit and Medium Blog. For those who don’t know, Rethink Foundation works day and night to support and help students excel and get better by finding suitable opportunities, relevant resources and much more. The founder, SKG is a man who believes in empowering young minds to tinker and explore opportunities. The lead of the Opportunity project, Arya Murali works extensively along with the rest of the team to stay up to date with resources and support for student applicants. In regards to this scholarship, the foundation had compiled an extensive resource bank on their wiki, and had even taken interviews with several previous year scholars to better understand the application process. They have made a bot on the Telegram application that facilitates students in finding peers applying for the same opportunity to establish a peer to peer support mechanism. Even better, as the deadline was closing in, Sandeep Zachariah from the foundation had made a sub-telegram channel where he answered student queries and sent mails to students with in-depth guidance and tips on tackling each kind of question.

Sandeep made a 4 day support plan and took a lot of pain to keep it engaging and active,

  1. Day 1-> Essay 1
  2. Day 2 -> Essay 2 and LoR’s
  3. Day 3 -> Video and Resume
  4. Day 4 -> Conclusion and further support

Each day he provided required support for each section, with depth and analysis. Reading through his advice, I was able to clearly encapsulate my thoughts and figure out what to present to the panel better than if I explained it myself. Below are the rough notes I made for the proposal:

Rough notes made after thinking about the questions

Now having penned my thoughts I was ready to approach the questions.

Filling in the application

A) Submit an essay (300 words maximum) to tell us about the following:

  • How do you plan to use computer science to make the world a more sustainable place? If you receive this scholarship, how will you use it to advance your passion and the goals of this scholarship?

To tackle this question, I thought about my personality. I love helping others find their true potential and want to help people get better in academics. But over the semesters I started observing trends in the class. Many students (including myself) would fall asleep in class, fail to clear doubts, and loose overall focus. I had my classmates take surveys to analyze why there was an inefficiency in performance. It was mainly due to a lack of purpose and the avalanche of pending work. I started to shift my focus into breaking down the personality of an average student and realized the difference between a successful and average academic career was in their productivity, whether they efficiently utilized their time. So to get people organized, I took a few steps, that started at personally messaging students college updates, which eventually brought me to the idea of making chatbots.

Screen Shots of the personal messages I used to send on a daily basis to keep classmates updated and organized
A few screenshots of the trial “Alice bot” Chatbot Adithya Nair, Hariraj and I worked on

December of 2017, Adithya Nair and Hariraj together worked hard to build this chatbot even without asking me as they were extremely encouraged to build it. I am glad to have found like minded people, as we explored ways to build this interface with basic features such as generating reminders, important documents and assignments. Adithya and Hariraj worked day and night, even during exams to build this interface, and together we were structuring this application. I am grateful to have friends like these two to support and guide me in my pursuits.

We could not complete this project and parted ways later, but this experience inspired my to think of stepping up to make a smarter chatbot that understood the student using machine learning, and that is the version I am pursuing currently.

In the essay I spoke about how the chatbot, which evolved after months of trials to understand what features it required, could enhance the student’s wellbeing, reducing the workload and degree of manual organization. I emphasized on how it had the capability of aiding to the needs of the student using neural networks and the potential it had in changing the standard routine in habit that students had. So using Computer Science, I believe that I can develop a sophisticated chatbot to reduce human effort, thus making the world a more sustainable place by being organized and focusing time on self-development. I also mentioned how it had the potential to scale up and serve many more students across a University, all by having an administrator to tweak the bot as required to provide necessary features.

Also, I elaborated on how the scholarship would help me pursue my goal of making this chatbot better and more specialized, with suitable features and more efficient machine learning mechanisms.

B) What adversary did you face, how did it impact your career? Please exemplify the steps you took to overcome it

Here, I mentioned what I understood after each semester about my friends and their academic and co-curricular well-being. I spoke of how I came to understand that students like myself could not reach their full potential due to the following reasons:

a) The Impostor Syndrome

b) Fear of Judgment

c) Procrastination

Speaking on a personal note, I falsely believed all those who made awesome apps, website and sophisticated applications of machine learning were extremely good, and that I never stood a chance against them. Also, I feared that if I failed, people would laugh about my attempt and that would further lower my self-esteem. These factors kept revolving and blocking myself like a layer of negativity and as a result, I could not spend time improving myself. I could not find a mentor to talk to me saying it was okay and that my thoughts were incorrect.

But in time, I realized that many of these “experts” had a start very much like mine, clueless and without a mean to escape the above mentioned factors. Even my friend who went to Singapore to present a seminar had a humble beginning and a challenging journey. Learning the story of many students like him made me realize that the voice in my head was wrong, and that in reality everyone just needs to try while welcoming failures, and help one another get better. So I made a change in my attitude towards this issue. Also, my unexpected yet encouraging encounter with Arya from Rethink foundation after she read about my work, and video call in the middle of the night boosted my confidence to apply for this scholarship and convinced me that external support was essential to help students like feel positive and optimistic about the future.

So to ensure none of our juniors went through the phases of painful growth, we at FOSSMEC started a mentor based monitoring system where students interested in any particular tech, or absolute beginners, are connected to suitable Seniors to maintain a one-on-one correspondence. These mentors have already gone down the track the student intends to take, and thus can provide the necessary support and tips to enhance the learning experience, be it in technical or motivational support. Being valued is essential, and that is what we are ensuring happens to students in our institute.

A one minute video explaining why you need this scholarship

My 1 minute video for Venkat Panchapakesan Memorial Scholarship

It took over 50 shots to get this one. I started 15:30 and finally got it by 20:30. My challenge was to shrink the content down to one minute. I watched a lot of previous scholars video, and realized that the highlight factor was that they were confident and clear about their pursuit.

Initially I wanted to show these paper-writings on screen and explain about it in more depth, that is, how being stuck in the “impostor syndrome-fear of judgement-procrastination” loop prevents students from reaching their full potential, and that the solution to it was personalized motivational support, either in the form of academic support chatbots or student support circles, both of which are smart to understand your strengths and help you learn the ropes to discover your full potential.

The paper messages I wanted to share on the video.

Unfortunately, the papers were “inverted” on the video (which could have been resolved) and was not small/clear enough to fit in, so I decided to later do video editing to show these, along with chatbot screenshots. But due to limited time remaining at the end, it did not work. I eventually resorted to a 1 minute 20 second video to explain verbally. I was running a marathon in my mind and was hoping I covered all the points essential. All this could have been avoided if I planned well ahead of time. Lessons for next time, I suppose.

The Resume and Letters of Recommendation

In my resume, I highlighted the positions I held in the college, and the projects I was working on. It is still development shape, so not much to reveal. But I have faith in the years to come to develop a much more interesting resume.

Sharon Rachel Manu extensively helped me about reaching out to my faculty professor about the letter of recommendation. She said it was important to cross validate the information on the resume, application and LoR as all of these are essential to add credibility to the claims. I spoke to my staff advisor and he patiently listened to the details of the application, the type of students they are seeking out and the actions I took. He wrote the letter and mailed well in time. My other recommender was a Director from an organization I volunteered at previously, and he too was very patient and understanding about my intentions for applying to this scholarship.

Conclusion

I eventually submitted the application at 11 PM, at the nick of time. It will take a few months until the results come, and I hope for the best. The best part about this application process is that, irrespective of whether or not you make it through, it makes you think about how you wish to invest your time in college, and gets you on the track to make an impact.

I have now made up my mind on the actions to take to help myself and my peers get better, and to improve my dream Academic support Chat Bot which can do wonders and aid the needs of the students in the future. If I get the right degree of support and help to achieve this using the scholarship, I believe it has the potential to get several students across institutions on track and help them find the secret “25th hour” of the day to invest in their co-curricular skills or deeper academic research.

One step to being organized, a giant leap towards productivity.

Thank you for reading through this series. I hope to update my results in the next entry.

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Uncovering value in testing times | joelvzach.co | Reach me at howdy@joelvzach.co

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Joel V Zachariah

Joel V Zachariah

Uncovering value in testing times | joelvzach.co | Reach me at howdy@joelvzach.co

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