January 20, 2007

Brac University Leading the Way

The city of masjids is on its way to becoming the Boston of South Asia, the city of Bishyabidyalays. A Indian journalist friend of mine on his return from an assignment in Bangladesh was remarking on the strangeness that is the private university phenomenon in Dhaka. Apparently, there are more than 50 private universities in the city. The number sounds as ridiculous as the lack of originality of their names (South West, North East, East West, North South are all names of Universities). Therefore, to say that BRAC University was my automatic choice of employer would not be a non sequitur. For "BU" turned out to be a very unique institution in several rather impressive ways.

Firstly, the whole idea of the summer residential semester at their satellite campus in Savar, 90 minutes or so from Dhaka, is unique. This is a semester in which many elite kids who are otherwise shuttling from their air-conditioned, servant-served interiors of homes in the Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara tri-state enclave to equally luxurious private university spaces - are made to live independently for two months - simulating a boarding school or an American college town experience. I hear from ex-students that many went back home after the 2 months of living alone, knowing how to cook basic meals, do their own laundry, be more disciplined overall and emotionally independent. Not to mention the students got to party much.

The courses the summer students took were also quite unique. It was a set-menu: Bangladesh Studies, Ethics, and English Language Proficiency (El-Pro). Bangladesh Studies (which I taught) was a multidisciplinary exposure to the history, literature, folk-life, religion, economics, public and foreign affairs of the Bangladeshi state. Something else I liked about the course was a larger South Asia focus. The course on ethics was largely an introduction to various German philosophers taught by an aging Germanophile professor.

The way El-Pro works is that at the moment of admission, students take a test of proficiency in the English Language and are assigned a score out of 8. For the rest of their time in BRAC, courses ranging from basic writing and speaking skills in English to more advanced compositional skills are meted out to students depending on their level. And what's more impressive is that thanks to Dr. Anisuzzaman, a legend of Bangla Studies at Dhaka University, BRAC U. plans to implement a mandatory Bangla language class in the same model as El-Pro. The idea being that Bangladeshis of this generation need to be perfectly bi-lingual and undermine the substantial divide that seems to exist on university campuses between Bangla-Medium and English-Medium kids. Of course, the divide is also a reflection of class differences, a harder problem to address.

Another high-point for me as well as for the students, were the numerous field trips that BU organized. Students, many of them for the first time (as was also the case for me), got to see various historical sites - from 8th century CE Buddhist Bihars (a Bihar was something like a monastery cum university) to World War II cemeteries. They also obtained first-hand, on-the-ground exposures to BRAC's impressive micro-credit and healthcare services.

Before the end of the semester I attended a high-profile meeting among Brac U. administrators to set up on-campus counseling services. In Bangladeshi society, emotional and mental health are still talked about in very culturally-coded language. Mental ill-health, counseling serves and such are looked at disparagingly. Parents seem to regard such issues as superfluous at best - evil western imports at worst. As a result, I was impressed by Brac U. administrators' seriousness in identifying stress- and depression-related problems in students and making institutional innovations to facilitate their treatment. The idea, still a work-in-progress as I understand, is to have a trained psychiatrist teach an intro course in psychology and build confidence with students thus. The lecturer cum psychiatrist can thus warm up to students and identify better those in need of help.

Brac University also runs a fabulous scholarship "Britti" program that targets the poorest of the poor families in Bangladesh, providing a stipend to stipend to ones that send children to Brac's elementary schools. After which, there is some talent-spotting, and many kids are paid to continue on to secondary school. If they continue to do well, Brac University admits them with full scholarships. This level of sustained financial support and mentoring is also unique. Certainly gives the for-profit enterprise an ideological edge that seems unsurprisingly lacking in the cash-cows that are the other private universities in Dhaka. Lastly, the admissions committee has a quota and greater scholarship arrangements for girl students, ensuring equitable gender distribution on campus.

1 comment:

Ahmed Tanjil Ruhullah said...

One genuine and vivid description of the prospects of BRAC University. It was an interesting read. A round of applause for the writer.