By Urvi N. Shah
In the first week of August, after two months of painstaking planning and uncontained excitement, I finally found myself at the Chennai airport with twelve other students. I knew three of them by face and nine others solely by their names. We were all going to attend the University Scholars Leadership Symposium, and if I say I was scared, nervous and piqued at the prospect of spending seven days in a foreign land with them, I am sure I am not exaggerating.
Right from the start, there were signs that my experience was going to be unforgettable – the first one being how we laughed when two of our teammates discovered that they had booked their tickets as ‘children’. Trying to keep a straight face at the counter as the no-nonsense airline official made changes to their boarding passes was a hint of the good times that were yet to come. After a bumpy flight-ride with no vegetarian food and brazen air-hostesses, we landed in Manila. The view of the city from the top was no different from any other Indian city, and the ride to the hotel proved the observation.
The next morning, we were taken in buses guarded by police bikes to the Philippines International Convention Centre, a stately government building which housed a grand conference hall. As we stepped in, we were greeted in traditional Filipino by volunteers. ‘Mabuhay’, they echoed, as they welcomed us in unison. After having excitedly introduced ourselves to innumerable university students from countries like Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Botswana and Malaysia, we slowly made our way to our seats for the opening ceremony, which gave us a glimpse of what was to come.
The Symposium consisted of five days of intense leadership lectures on social change by speakers like Bam Aquino, a young Senator of the Philippines and social entrepreneur; Pushpa Basnet, 2012 CNN Hero of the Year; Peter Baines, Corporate Social Responsibility specialist. I learned ideas and tools to use a sustainable approach in solving various developmental challenges, of which poverty seems the most insurmountable. To give us hands-on learning experience and to complement our theoretical understanding of issues, we were divided into two groups and made to take part in activities. One group was taken to a slum where they constructed a house along the lines of United Nations Human Rights Programme (a joint initiative by UN-HABITAT and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)). The other group was taken to a rehabilitation centre where they spent time with slum-dwelling children, centred around the United Nations Convention on Rights of a Child.
Apart from these lectures and activities, Pratik Kothari, Ayush Bhargava and I took part in a Business Plan competition at the Symposium. Our entry for the competition was an idea that aimed to tackle poverty at a micro-level using community-based solutions. We placed third in the competition, and our plan was selected to receive funding. As of now we are still deliberating on the logistics of the plan, given its elaborate and time-consuming nature.
The five days of the Symposium were busy, with lectures, events and activities organised from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. every day. But no description of my Manila experience would be complete without a note about the good times we had outside the gruelling conference. From making prank calls, to going to a casino; from ravenously searching for vegetarian food, to wolfing down breakfast at 4 a.m. after a tiring all-nighter; from trekking up a volcano and wakeboarding, to revisiting Manila’s Spanish history; from making “firang” friends, to learning how to pronounce their very difficult names; from forging ties with seniors and batchmates whom I would never have met otherwise, to learning about cultures and countries outside my own, this Symposium exceeded all my expectations. Adding credibility to the international marketing campaign of the Department of Tourism in Philippines, it is definitely more fun in the Philippines.
The team of students that represented IITM in the Symposium consisted of Adithya V. S., Ayush Bhargava, Jithin Sam Varghese, Damini Gandham, Neha Nathan, Pratik Kothari, Prithin S. Kuruvila, Raghav Tandon, Rahul Dcunha, Sanchit Mehta, Sashank Vandrangi, Subhojyoti Bakshi and Urvi N. Shah.