By Devika Jamkhedkar (Batch of 2021) and Arpita Wadhwa (Batch of 2021) The data presented in
By Hiya Chowdhury, UG23
As my first year at Ashoka draws to a close, I can’t help but separate my experience of university life from the experience of isolation, lockdowns and disconnection—as I’m sure is true for a bulk of the student body at this juncture. As the second wave of the pandemic settles in, bringing with it new, apocalyptic devastations, there is a familiar feeling of wanting to hold on to the small mercies: a friend to talk to without a screen mediating the conversation, a semester where burn-out doesn’t feel inevitable, a university space that feels safe and protective. What emerges as a difficult truth, however, is that these small mercies are tough to come by—not only because the pandemic has taken its toll on each of us but also because our university spaces become more distant and disillusioning the more time we spend away from them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a first years’ university experience, for what does one make of university if they’ve never truly experienced it?
A feeling of disconnection and distance seems to have occupied all the space in our emotional bandwidth. Add to this year-long experience the first day of university, something each student cherishes for better or for worse, and the months of university ‘life’ that follow in the midst of the pandemic. For any first-year student, these months have been a blur. They began with a series of events that tried to inculcate into us the Ashokan culture: RA meetings took place with no hostel residence in sight, cohort meetings instilled in us what seemed like the popular Ashokan vernacular (“Dhaba,” “THC,” “hot water timings”), even the administration tried to soften the blow by giving us red-brick Zoom backgrounds. Looking back, while these were well-intentioned attempts to create a sense of community, the only thing they underlined was how far we were from any semblance of university life. They also made one thing painfully clear: to study in a university is one thing, but to belong to a university is something else altogether. Belongingness implies a sense of connection, and that is what university life has demanded of us in times of utter disconnect. As we settled into the Ashokan way, albeit uneasily, it became evident that for the new undergraduate student, a time of isolation wasn’t simply one of interpersonal disconnect—it was also one of institutional disconnect.
In a way, this disconnect has bred a batch of students who have mastered the Ashokan vocabulary in their attempt to mirror the experiences of their seniors in the absence of actually having those experiences. We’ve learnt to speak of Ashoka with a suspicious familiar fondness, as though we know what it’s like to have a lemon ginger tea at the Dhaba or wind down in a friend’s dorm room the night before a final. But we do not know what these experiences are like and this heavy, mostly juvenile knowledge makes our pretence even more pointed. It is, of course, an odd concern in such devastating times to long for a university space that feels free and exciting, and often this concern is also fleeting. And yet, the thought of being on campus under normal circumstances often comes coupled with the knowledge that if we were, the pandemic would probably not have been a reality either.
But this romanticisation of university life comes crumbling down in the face of recent events, primarily because our institutional disconnect has also made space for institutional disillusionment. The last few months at Ashoka, especially if they were also one’s first few, have created a sense of disappointment in the institution. For many first-years, this disappointment began with the issue of the current FC Structure which puts undue academic pressure on first-year students, leaving them unable to satisfactorily complete their academic trajectories—a problem that spells worse trouble for those who cannot bear the financial burden of taking extra semesters. The Vice-Chancellor’s town hall with the first-years over this issue exposed a glaring disregard for students on financial aid and for the very academic journeys that Ashoka promises to assist; for many, this was also a first and rather upsetting encounter with the administration.
Unfortunately, this was a pattern that repeated itself time and again, and in many manifestations. The dismaying response by the administration over Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation was one such event, the issue of worker’s welfare and their repeated mistreatment another, right down to the recent student account on how the administration not only failed to protect them from abuse but also contributed to it, and the debacle over whether or not students were being forced to leave campus when the pandemic was at its worst.
And then came the incidents which, for many, stripped away even the desire to actually be on campus: the accounts of sexual harassment and violence on the UG Facebook group, and the disappointing reality of CASH and other administrative bodies’ inability to remedy this grossly unsafe environment. In many ways, the ineptitude of the Ashokan administration has confirmed that the safety of university spaces is not something one can take for granted, even miles away from campus.
I am sure that this ineptitude bared its fangs with great regularity even before I came to Ashoka, perhaps in worse ways. However, what makes a first-year student’s disappointment in the institution markedly different from that of someone older is the very fact that they have never stepped foot on campus. This is the only Ashoka they know, and there is very little saving grace in this regard. Contrary to this, some seniors can perhaps revisit fond memories of their university life: memories of friends and roommates, first parties and last classes of the semester, reminding themselves that there exists an Ashoka outside of the administration’s incompetence. These memories might help restore faith for some, or at least create a sense of safe haven for others. In other words, interpersonal connectedness can often help manufacture a sense of institutional engagement. And yet, for many first-years, there hasn’t been a campus to have fond memories of—there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. What does one do with this disappointment when there is no way to balm it with a feeling of connection and community?
While the current disillusionment can be attributed to a very specific source, nobody can be implicated for the broader lack of connection we feel, which makes the situation that much harder. But the thought I cannot escape is this: is Ashoka gearing up for a steady influx of students who do not, and cannot, feel connected to its existence? And does that create a marked change in how we interact with our universities as a whole, modifying the recurrent belief that one must necessarily feel a kinship with their academic institutions?
Currently, the oft-quoted “Ashokan apathy” is manifesting itself in new ways, in students who cannot adjust with or find comfort in being called an Ashokan in the first place. Of course, people are trying very hard to reconstruct a university experience from scratch: private Zoom conversations, discord movie nights, and sleeping in class with the video off are becoming part of the new Ashokan vernacular for some students. But my first year at Ashoka has made abundantly clear that while we are all looking for small mercies in the face of this devastating pandemic, moments of relief and security are not to be found in the Ashokan moniker—or in the institution which breeds it.