Interview with Shivani Manchanda, Counselling Coordinator

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1. Could you shed some light on the working of the counselling facility at IITB?

There are two full-time counsellors and a part-time Counselling Coordinator. Besides being available at the office, we also engage with the DAMP and ISMP mentors. The idea is to involve student bodies. We need feedback from them to identify the stress points and the spectrum of problems that a student might face. We have also stressed upon training workshops for mentors and have also formulated a curriculum of sorts for them. This year, TISS was invited to conduct a training session for the mentors. The idea is to make the mentors better equipped at dealing with their mentees.

2. What are the problems that a student faces here at IITB?

IITB provides a very competitive environment. The academic pressure, the feeling that life is not going in a particular path that they set out on, losing a general interest in academics, etc. are the prime problems. More or less, academic performance is a big cause of emotional and psychological problems that students face at IITB. The tag of IIT is so overwhelming that the student might succumb to it and may resort to pretence in front of parents and friends back home. There is this gap between this pretentious perception and reality which is where parents fail to realize the problems beneath. Also, the parents and the society put up so much expectation on the student that he/she starts feeling that they’re failures since they don’t have a high CGPA here. They don’t realise that grades, although important, are not an absolute measure of the student’s potential.

The academic pressure, the feeling that life is not going in a particular path that they set out on, losing a general interest in academics, etc. are the prime problems.

Also, the fact that the students have worked so doggedly for 2 years to get into IIT that they have lost touch with their emotional side. The isolation that accompanies the rigorous preparation for getting into an IIT limits the emotional exposure that students get, and hence when suffering from low spirits or even depression, a student is confused as to how to deal with it, and further aggravates his well-being. The institute itself is very competitive, and is a little insipid. There is a general lack of tenderness, not within the people, but the general atmosphere. Look at your hostels. They’re so dull. Vibrant atmosphere buoys the spirits and aides to the general happiness and well being.

Language barrier is also a problem. Students coming from different backgrounds might not be well versed with English which is the chosen medium of instruction here. This also hampers their academic performance.

3. But we have an English proficiency test for freshmen, and according to it, if need be the student is advised to undergo language training in English. What is your take on it?

See, the students lacking English skills are subjected to a two-months training in English which, in my opinion, is not sufficient. Also what I feel that the JEE is conducted in English and it is very hypocritical to admit students based on an examination conducted in English and then arrange for English learning. What I feel is that IITs should start having a minimum language proficiency for admission, much like many universities need a certain TOEFL score to be eligible for admission. Agreed, this might draw a lot of flak from aspirants, but the institute can at least give students a much more intensive training in English while exempting them from any academic pressure in the interim.

IITs should start having a minimum language proficiency for admission, much like many universities need a certain TOEFL score to be eligible for admission.

4. How do you think the mentorship programmes at IITB can help?

ISMP mentoring is very helpful since the 1st year students are very receptive to the mentors especially since they see them as someone they should emulate. Plus, the seniority factor means that the freshmen take their advice seriously. In general, the 1st year students are easier to help or mould since they’re more open to help. Also, they’re problems are very trivial – homesickness, mess food, what to explore, etc.

Most of the major psychological problems that students face is in their 3rd and 4th years. Helping them is tougher in the sense that they have already established their beliefs, and have either given up or have become cynical towards the life that they’re leading in IITB. This is why I feel that DAMP mentorship is more crucial and their job is much tougher than the freshmen mentors. This is because of two reasons:

a. The DAMP mentors are often their peers or seniors by a year, because of which the mentees are generally very unreceptive. They’d dodge phone calls, meetings, etc. as this is more sort of an imposed mentorship which is indeed necessary. The fact that no one wants to be a DAMP mentee contributes to the general cynicism towards the DAMP mentorship.

b. Students under the DAMP mentorship already have too many backlogs. Hence, rather than seeking help or taking the advice of mentors, they generally give up on their academics. Students having 2-3 or more backlogs start falling into a spiral from which they find it very hard to break free.

DAMP mentorship hence needs to be stronger, and more support is needed to be able to function more efficiently.

DAMP mentorship needs to be stronger, and more support is needed to be able to function more efficiently.

5. What kind of measures can we take to for the same?

I have put forwards specific areas where support is required. A Mentor Manual for the mentors (both ISMP and DAMP) is under progress and should be available by the end of next semester. 3/4th has already been completed. More training sessions should be conducted. More than anything, the perspective towards DAMP needs to change from a body that imposes mentorship to weak students to that of a healthy, more informal and friendly mentoring of students. The professors can also contribute more to the cause.

6. Taking the point further, how do you think the professors can help?

Not just the faculty, but the institute itself needs to incorporate certain reforms. For example, allowing a student to drop a semester and only work on the existing backlogs, or allowing a student to pass out gracefully with a B.Tech. degree rather than an M.Tech., etc. The professors could also have informal meetings and discussions, something like a Prof Adda or Goshthis, where the students and professors can meet for a tea or coffee and just talk things other than academics – be it personal, general life fundae, etc. Also, the institute could incorporate courses on stress management in the guise of personality development in the curriculum. We started an EQ101 course where 1st year students, both UG and PG, were involved in discussions on peer pressure, stress management, substance abuse, etc. This needs to be revived. More support groups like Saathi could also help. Insight should cover articles on stress management, how the people who are successful manage their time, their academics, etc. Also, I feel you people don’t do enough feel-good stories or a praise for the good work done by mentors.

It is very important that one recognizes his/her strengths and weaknesses and puts himself under academic or professional duress accordingly.

7. Lastly, how committed is the counselling facility towards raising the emotional support and the ‘tenderness’ that you stress upon?

We have been quite committed to the cause. We conducted workshops for stress management, we celebrated the World Mental Health Day in October under which a lot of activities were conducted. There was a popular talk by Mickey Mehta on mental awareness, we shared videos on sleep deprivation, parental pressure, there was an art exhibition of comics based on what I call the superhero complex aimed at removing the stigma associated with seeking counselling. Icare was started a couple of years back. Although it faced initial skepticism from the authorities since they were worried that a public forum like Facebook could take a toll on the image, but now there is a consensus that it was a good step, especially since I get a lot of messages and in general it is a better platform to reach students. What we are trying to promote is positive psychology rather than preventive psychology. I feel if the environment within the campus is made more positive, it would go a long way in creating a healthy atmosphere for students. The big reforms are there, but we need to incorporate smaller tweaks too. I have proposed construction of music yoga rooms in all the hostels where one can sit without restriction or compulsion and meditate or just enjoy a moment of silence. No mobiles or laptops or talking or anything noisy, just pure silence. More like a de-stressing zone. One of the hostels has agreed to try this out. We have also proposed training to be imparted to the security in crisis management and soft skills. This is necessary because in case of untoward incidents like the recent one, we need to counter the repercussions that it may have on surrounding students. There is also a proposal for a special task force to deal with such incidents. More awareness campaigns like talk to your friend, etc. need to be held and publicized. Improving the overall emotional atmosphere is very crucial since emotional resilience is the key here.

All this aside, I think self compassion is necessary. The students have to learn how much stress to put themselves under. It is very important that one recognizes his/her strengths and weaknesses and puts himself under academic or professional duress accordingly.

“How do you cope is the key. Society is going to be the same, the institute is going to be the same, the organisations that you work in are going to be the same. Thus, the stress is going to be the same. How you cope with it, how emotionally resilient you are is the key to remain happy. The students need to realize and work actively towards the same.”