Terrible thing to waste a mind; and criminal to waste a bright mind

“Happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give.” – Ben Carson (noted neurosurgeon)

Foundation for Excellence India Trust’s (FFE) one-room basic office on Bangalore’s Indiranagar lies in complete contrast to the work that they do and the impact they create. Set up in 1995, FFE helps exceptionally talented but poor students in India become doctors, engineers, and computer scientists. And they do this by sponsoring their higher education, thus ensuring that students complete their education, graduate with professional degrees, and are able to earn a reasonable salary. Clearly a well thought of move to pull them and their families out of the cycle of poverty.

Set up by leading venture capitalist and philanthrophist Dr. Prabhu Goel and his wife Mrs. Poonam Goel, FFE funds education because the Goels’ felt it was the most valuable gift to give somebody. They also chose to emphasize higher education because they found that there are many non-government organizations (NGOs) that focus on primary education, literacy, and other similar programs, but very few that cater to higher education. Higher education, according to them, was also akin to teaching a man to fish rather than providing him with a fish. Till date, the organization has assisted 12,365 students (37% of whom are girls) across 25 states in India. This translates into Rs. 45 crores worth of scholarships to students in India.

With impeccable processes in place, FFE is able to ensure that every rupee invested is worth it. Infact, their estimates show that each rupee that they have invested in a talented child has returned 140x to society. Essentially, calculated by estimating the salary they receive on climbing the ladder as a doctor/engineer versus a non-graduate. Do the Math yourself and you’ll realize that this estimate is a fairly conservative one.

So, how does the process work? The program is open to any student in India. There is no discrimination on the basis of caste, community, gender, religion, region or state. However, students need to prove that they are they are truly financially needy (which means they have a combined family income of Rs. 1.2 lacs or less per annum) as well as academically bright (which means they must rank in the top 15% of their class). Moreover, they must be undergoing courses towards degrees to qualify as engineers, doctors or computer scientists only. While this limitation did not exist in FFE’s formative years, constraint of resources forced them to focus on who needed their support the most. As a result, they narrowed down to courses they believed made the most impact, where the costs of education were high but career prospects were also equally high, and students and their families are likely to see a transformational shift in income and standard of life in a single generation.

The unique aspect of the program is that the process of identifying students is entirely done by volunteers, who are designated as “Coordinators” and “Facilitators”. Facilitators are volunteers in India who have a keen interest and knowledge of the education sector. A Facilitator identifies eligible students and ensures that the applicant qualifies for a FFE scholarship by doing background checks and house visits. If all criteria are met, the Facilitator recommends the student for a FFE scholarship, providing all help and an undertaking along with the student when the form is submitted (online). If accepted, FFE awards the scholarship to the student. Often the Facilitator serves as a Mentor, who channels this meritorious and deserving scholar onto a promising future. The network of facilitators is unique to FFE and is its strength and backbone. The individual effort made by facilitators in identifying three (six in the current year 2013-14) new students per year ensures that they have enough time and resources to ascertain the veracity of the scholars’ economic and academic credentials and are able to mentor students as needed. The Facilitator also helps the student renew the scholarship in each successive year of study, until graduation.

The reason for this process has been clarified by Mr. Goel. He says, “Basically, the way the process works is, we like to have somebody in India who has personal contacts with the student, to sponsor him. And that person in India who is an intermediary, we would like them to have a counter part in the US, who therefore provides the linkage. Because we have no way of otherwise validating the integrity of the data that we’re getting. So, we absolutely require a US presence. Some volunteer from the US must vouch for the party in India that is then sourcing the students.”

The scholarships are awarded on an annual basis with a renewal dependent on continued academic excellence and financial need. If a FFE scholar fails in any subject, the scholarship is halved the first time. If the student fails in the same subject the second time, then it is discontinued. Personal touch has also been introduced into the model through regular meetings between scholars and Facilitator. A Facilitator’s role is also to monitor the progress of the scholar as well as mentor him/her till successful completion of their course. So, while the entire process is a tad tedious and takes typically 2–4 months, the impact is visible in the results – making it worth the effort.

Another notable aspect is how FFE has built in a mechanism to make its model sustainable. Each scholarship recipient from FFE undertakes a pledge to support at least two scholars once s/he has the capacity to do so. So, unlike most other charities where the flow of money is always one way, FFE’s model ensures that the current scholars go on to become future donors. They received over Rs 25 lakhs from past scholars in the financial year ending in March 2013!

“No scholar left behind” is the objective that drives this program. It is their vision to see every deserving student in India get an education that s/he deserves. As Mr. Goel says, “When we originally started, our goal was only 10,000 students. While I would like FFE to be able to magically get up to 100,000, realistically I want to be able to fund half a million bright and underprivileged scholars by 2025; and for them to have a leverage impact on society around them.” With a recent grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to fund 400 students, they are clearly taking strides to achieve that goal.

To sum it up in Dr. Goel’s own words, “It’s very distressing when you find a student that’s very bright and does not end up going to college. They say it’s a terrible thing to waste a mind. I say, it’s criminal to waste a bright mind.”

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