Like any boy of that age in a middle-class family, Anand Kumar wanted to go in for higher studies after school. But tragedy struck just at the time he was deciding the direction to take."The sudden demise of my father, a postal employee, prevented me from going to Cambridge University," says Anand. But mathematics remained his passion.
Mother Jayanti Devi took it upon herself to make a new beginning.
"She prepared papads and vadas and I sold them to the groceries. I became the 'papad-wala ladka'," Anand recalls.
In 1996, the young man with a mathematical bent of mind started giving tuitions for a fee. The coaching industry was booming in Bihar at that time. And Anand soon had 250-300 students in a class. The monetary worries eased.
In 2002, Anand co-founded the Super 30, a coaching centre that would spot and train — for free — 30 young talents from poor families. The aim was to see them through the joint entrance exam of the Indian Institutes of Technology, a tough exam for which lakhs apply but only a few thousands get in. To the poor kids it would mean a ticket to a successful career.
In 2003, 18 of the 30 students made it through IIT-JEE."Some said it's a fluke, but I knew it wasn't," says Anand. Next year 22 made it. The number rose to 26 in 2005 and to 28 in 2007 and 2008. For the last three years, all 30 students have been cracking one of the toughest exams in the country.
How does he do it? Anand says the answer lies in a rigorous training at the centre and regular practice tests.
"From the son of a marginal farmer to that of a daily wage worker, they all stay under the same roof and are totally cut off from the outside world for nearly 10 months before the exam," he said.
How do the students see this drill? What do they do after getting the ticket to an IIT? We ask four former students of this remarkable institution.
Abhishek Raj has come a long way from Rasalpur, a tiny village in the Nalanda district of Bihar. Despite his father, Durga Prasad being a farmer, he insisted that Abhishek prepare for IIT."But I hardly had any guidance or the resources yet I qualified in 2003 as rank number 3002," he says.
An alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, he specialised in exploration geophysics."I remember how enthusiastic the students at Super 30 were. And while most of us were from modest backgrounds, it was encouraging to see how well everyone did despite our rural background."
Today, he is a seismic engineer in Houston, US. But he can't forget the day he cleared the JEE."My parents were overwhelmed. I had never dreamt that I could make it this far."
Abhishek's rural background often made him feel inhibited in IIT. But once he realised that he was just there to study, things began to fall into place."I truly believe that getting into IIT-JEE requires hard work and guidance, especially for the rural students who don't have the advantage of top class schooling. Perseverance and hardwork really pay off. "
Six years ago, when Amit Kumar was in the 12th standard at the MF High School in Nalanda, he'd never heard of IIT. But in 2005, a chance trial class at Super 30 changed his life.
"I was lucky to get into a coaching centre that trained me so rigorously," he says, recalling how jubilant his family was the day he cracked the JEE."Nobody realised what I had done. But when realisation sunk in, my parents, who are farmers, couldn't believe what their son had done."
Currently, Amit is working with Mecon Limited, Ahmedabad and he feels that financial hardship should not hamper the chances of the talent pool from the rural areas."At Super 30, we were 30 boys from different backgrounds. But nobody cared what castes or class we belonged to. We were all thrown into solving challenging problems and we ate, slept and studied together. And that instilled a lot of confidence in us."
Amit strongly feels that there is a growing need to tap into the talent from the rural areas where students really have to really struggle to get where they want because of the lack of facilities and good educational institutions."My success changed my family. Other students in my village also want to make the same choices I made. And I feel if they are given the right direction, there is no better way of bringing about social change."
For the first time in the history of IITs, an undergraduate student has got the opportunity to be part of an exchange programme. Which is why Santosh Kumar is currently in Belgium's Ghent University pursuing the prestigious Eurindia felllowship, instead of sitting in class at IIT, Kharagpur. The 10-month exchange programme will allow Santosh to earn two Master's degrees simultaneously."I feel like I am really working hard to make my country proud," he says.
Having lived in Bihta, a small town in Bihar, for most of his life Santosh says that he found it very difficult to adapt to IIT."But when I settled down gradually, I knew I had only one goal — to study hard and do something. I did not want to squander the opportunity."
His experience at Super 30 came in handy and his vigorous training was evident. And while he attributes his success to the almighty and his parents and mentor, he hasn't forgotten all what his father had done to ensure his education."My father went through a lot to put me here." But now Santosh's success has brought about a metamorphosis for the family.
It's been a long journey for Shashi Narayan. From a Khagaria school in Bihar to IIT, Kharagpur to France and now Malta, this student of Super 30 (batch of 2004) is finally where he wants to be — researching under the EU's Erasmus Mundus scholarship. Despite his modest background - his father is a staffworker at Sadar Hospital in Khagaria district — Shashi never let things affect him. Says this soft-spoken B-Tech graduate."I was always passionate about computers and while I was one the 26 students of Super 30 that got into IIT the following year, I managed to get a degree in both computer sciences and mining engineering." From there he went on to attend summer school at Microsoft Research India and did an internship at INRIA (Institute National de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique), France. And that's how he found his calling — research.