December 2009 | Jai Wadia

Enabling a dream education

The JN Tata Endowment, since its inception in 1892, has been enabling India’s brightest minds to shine brighter

“To invest in a human being and give the best in him an opportunity to flower is one of the most fruitful investments a public trust can ever make,” said Dinshah K Malegamvala, former director of the JN Tata Endowment, on the occasion of its 85th anniversary.
 
And that is exactly what the JN Tata Endowment for the higher education of Indians has been doing since it was established in 1892 by Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata who set up Tata Sons in 1868 and laid the foundation of the Tata group of companies. The endowment gives loan scholarships to Indian students aspiring to go abroad for post-graduate studies and to mid-career professionals who want to pursue a specialised course of study, that may not be available in the country. 
 
During the last quarter of the 19th century, key services like the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the Indian Educational Service and the Indian Medical Service all employed British nationals. A visionary and passionate patriot, Jamsetji Tata aspired and hoped for political independence and for a country that was industrially developed and advanced in the sciences, technology and the arts. His original plan aimed at grooming future ICS officers while enabling Indians to pursue professional courses abroad, since many of them did not have the means to undertake this on their own.
 
In an interview he stated, “What advances a nation or the community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, as to lift up the best and most gifted so as to make them of the greatest service to the country. I prefer this constructive philanthropy which seeks to educate and develop the faculties of the best of our young men.”
 
It was for this that Jamsetji established the endowment. Interestingly, this pioneering initiative in the field of education was the first Tata benefaction by the founder and perhaps the first of its kind in Asia.
 
In doing so, Jamsetji was truly ahead of his time. He also encouraged women to avail of this opportunity. In fact the first two scholars – Freany K Cama and Krishnabai Kelavkar – were women doctors who he selected knowing the high rate of childbirth-related deaths, the dearth of lady doctors and the reluctance of Indian women to go to male doctors.
 
For 117 long years, the JN Tata Endowment has helped many Indian youth and mid-career professionals fulfil their dream of studying abroad. Till date the trust has benefitted over 4,100 budding individuals who have studied in some of the finest institutions in the UK, the US, Europe, Australia and other countries, in more than 200 different disciplines. Many of these scholars went on to distinguished careers, holding key positions in various walks of life in India and overseas.
 
Some of these outstanding individuals include physician Dr Raghvendra Rao, Sir Ardeshir Dalal, ICS and member of the viceroy’s executive council, Sir Nowrosji Wadia, judge of the Bombay High Court, B Narsinga Rau, ICS, of the International court at the Hague, VKRV Rao, former union minister of education and KR Narayanan, former President of India.
 
In recent times, people like Raja Ramanna, director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Jayant V Narlikar, renowned astrophysicist, Jamshed J Irani, director, Tata Sons, RA Mashelker, director general, CSIR, Shashi Tharoor, author and politician, and many others have been JN Tata scholars.
 
The life and career of people like these bear testimony to the crucial contribution and value that the endowment has brought to the nation.
 
Making the cut
Nawaz Mody
Every year about 120 scholars are chosen after a rigorous selection process to receive the loan scholarship, which also includes a gift component and travel assistance. Director of the JN Tata Endowment Nawaz Mody, says, “Jamsetji Tata could have easily gifted the amounts to the scholars but he wanted them to be loans since he believed very strongly that they should stand on their own feet and pay back and have a sense of self-worth and self-reliance.”
 
The JN Tata Endowment loan scholarships are given to Indian nationals irrespective of their age, income, creed, etc for a wide range of disciplines ranging from medicine and engineering to MBA, pure sciences, humanities, fine arts, etc. The flexibility in the choice of disciplines and the fact that there is no upper age limit to apply are unique to the endowment. The only requirements are that the applicants should be Indian nationals and should have completed their undergraduate studies in India from recognised institutions. A good academic record is also important as is the intent of the scholar and how serious he / she is about pursuing a particular course of study.
 
Applicants are shortlisted based on a scaling and a minimum score requirement. Selected candidates are called in for interviews jointly conducted by subject experts and the JN Tata Endowment team. Only the very best are finally selected. “A high grade point alone doesn’t necessarily equate to a high performer, so we also test their ability to apply their knowledge in their area of expertise as also their knowledge of general information and their ability to debate current issues. The interviews are very rigorous. Ultimately, it is these factors that distinguish a JN Tata scholar,” explains Ms Mody.
“Of course some of the main things we look for when selecting scholars are excellence and merit,” she adds.
 
Over the years the number of applicants for the JN Tata Endowment scholarships has been steadily increasing. Last year the endowment had close to 2,500 applicants from across the country. A majority were from Mumbai and Maharashtra.
 
Behind the scenes
The endowment has recently streamlined and structured its processes. The application form has been made more concise and easier to understand. Even the loan agreements have been changed. Through the concerted efforts of its team members, the endowment has managed to collect many outstanding loan amounts from scholars and managed to reduce the rate of defaulters to about 5 per cent.
 
“In 2007, for the very first time an orientation programme was organised for the selected candidates. This has helped a great deal. The scholars now identify with the endowment and get to meet their own peer group,” says Ms Mody. They are also able to meet other JN Tata Scholars. During the orientation they get the chance to meet people from the British Council and the United States Education Foundation in India as well as interact with the trustees of the endowment. A lot of time is spent counselling the students and preparing them for their overseas stint since most of them have never been abroad before.
 
“Some of the challenges the endowment faces lie in constantly trying to keep abreast of the latest courses available, the various specialisations, etc, getting subject experts from these areas for the interview selection process and keeping pace with the changing manpower requirements of the country,” informs Ms Mody.
 
The endowment is constantly striving to improve itself. Currently it is in the process of digitalising all its records and hopes to launch its own website soon. Ms Mody would also like to trace and document the career paths of JN Tata scholars more closely.
 
In the last three years, the maximum loan amount for an individual has been doubled from Rs2.20 lakh to Rs4 lakh. The actual amount given to each scholar varies, depending on whether they have been able to avail of funds from other sources or not.
 
“We are also looking to increase the gift amount which is given to all students who avail of the loan,” says Ms Mody. “All of us, including the trustees, realise that the cost of a year’s education abroad is nearly Rs20-30 lakh and by increasing the amount that we give to them, we would like to make a substantial difference.”
 
The endowment has definitely made a difference, and in more ways than one. One of the most gratifying aspects of the work, says Ms Mody, is “to see such bright minds blossoming so well. It is a real pleasure to interact with them”.
 
Many of the scholars have been sending in their progress reports and heartfelt appreciation notes to the endowment. Chinmay Tumbe, a JN Tata scholar who studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), writes, “Over the last three years, I have learned a lot at LSE, interacted with people from around the world, taken part in numerous activities and worked for a year with an investment bank. I cannot thank you enough for supporting a dream education. I will strive now to uphold the vision of the founders of this endowment with all my dedication.”
 
Another scholar, Poojitha Rao, who received a loan to study financial engineering at Cornell University in the US, writes, “Cornell is magnificent. I am extremely grateful to you and the Trust for making my study at Cornell a lot easier. I am savouring every moment here, as this is a dream come true.”
 
It is the progress and commendable achievements of numerous such JN Tata scholars that makes this such a worthwhile endeavour — thanks to the vision and large-heartedness of one man and his love for India.
 
Some distinguished JN Tata scholars

Srikant M Datar
Mr Datar was awarded the JN Tata Scholarship in 1980 to pursue his PhD in business at Stanford University, USA.
 
On completion of his doctorate he took up a career in teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, where he received the George Leland Bach Award for excellence in the classroom and the Distinguished Teaching Award at Stanford University. He has co-authored the leading cost accounting textbook titled Cost Accounting: A Managerial Emphasis.
 
His published research is on activity-based management, incentives and performance evaluation in several prestigious journals including The Accounting Review, Journal of Accounting Research and Management Science, among others.
 
Currently, Mr Datar is the Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of accounting, senior associate dean and director of research at Harvard Business School, USA.
 
Dinshaw J Patel
Mr Patel was a JN Tata scholar in 1961. He studied for an MS degree in organic chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA, after which he completed his doctorate at New York University in 1968.
 
Later he became professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, and joined the structural biology programme at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, New York in 1992.
 
Currently he is a professor at the Weill School of Medical Sciences, Cornell University, and holds the Abbey Rockefeller Mauze Chair in experimental therapeutics in the structural biology programme of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre.
 
He has published more than 300 research papers in academic journals of repute. Mr Patel has also pioneered the application of crystallographic techniques to investigate protein and nucleic acid architecture, recognition, regulation and catalysis. He was elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences in April 2009.
 
Shashi Tharoor
A 1975 JN Tata scholar, Mr Tharoor joined the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, where he received the Robert Stewart Prize for his MA in 1976. At 22, he completed his doctorate from the Fletcher School, securing a distinction in his oral examination. In 1978, he joined the UN High Commissioner for refugees in Geneva as assistant to the director of external affairs.
 
From January 1997 to July 1998 he was executive assistant to the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He left the UN in August 2007 after successfully handling a number of high-profile responsibilities.
 
Mr Tharoor has written numerous novels in English including The Great Indian Novel, Show Business and Riot.
 
In March 2009, Mr Tharoor was declared the Indian National Congress candidate of the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala for the General Elections in 2009. Having won the election he was sworn in as minister of state to the union government of India as external affairs minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
 

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