From Applicants to Minerva Students: Thriving in Hyderabad

by Neagheen Homaifar | Jun 14, 2018

The sound of car horns blaring in Hyderabad is as inevitable as the fog rolling into San Francisco even on the warmest days. After a number of days in the city, I came to find the cacophony comforting — it was a reminder of the significance of where I was.

Hyderabad is one of India’s most populous and dynamic cities, its global standing underlined by a thriving technology scene and the Telugu film industry, aptly named Tollywood. I was excited to experience India for the first time, and even more excited to see Minerva’s second- and third-year students, whom I hadn’t seen since their freshman year in San Francisco.

When I arrived at the residence hall, around 10 pm on a Saturday night, I had butterflies in my stomach. Students were scattered throughout the courtyard: some were playing ping pong, one or two were FaceTiming family members, and others were waiting for their Ola or Uber to pick them up to go dancing in the city. One group of students had arrived just before me, dusty and slightly sunburned from a spring break trip backpacking in northern India.

As Director of Admissions, I am largely focused on future students of Minerva, many of whom are contemplating one of the most important decisions they will make as young adults: which university program to attend. At the start of the school year, while my colleagues across Minerva focus on creating an exceptional student-centric college experience, my team begins to work on selecting the next generation of students — those who are bold enough to do something different, brave enough to push their cultural and intellectual boundaries, and optimistic enough to believe they can improve the world’s condition.

In my opinion, the traditional college admissions process is not optimized to identify such people — at least not systematically. There are too many standardized test scores and stock questions clouding out the person behind the application, and too many financial barriers to entry that do a better job highlighting the power of resources than reflecting the merits of a student. At Minerva, we wanted to dig deeper, so we designed our own admissions process.

The nature of our admissions process requires that our applicants start their path to Minerva with an uncommon mindset. We ask students to share with us what they dedicate their time to and how they impact their communities. We learn about how they think using a series of challenges, and we see how they operate in a structured school environment by reviewing their academic history.

At Minerva, we pride ourselves in admitting students that are open-minded, curious, and optimistic. They must be willing to do something different — to learn something new and, potentially, earn the chance to embark on a very different journey. And, as I learned during my trip to Hyderabad, these characteristics continue to grow and become more pronounced after a few semesters at Minerva.

One morning in Hyderbad, a group of students and I piled into a car for a sunrise hike before the heat and haze settled in. An incorrectly dropped pin led us, instead, to a field of boars…in complete darkness. We couldn’t help but laugh! Someone even asked if it would be faster for us to walk across the field than to circumnavigate it.

Fortunately, a few friendly head nods and gesticulations later, our driver was able to get us to our intended destination. By then, however, the sun had already risen and the rest of the group had made it to the top of Khajaguda Hills. For the students I was with, what was supposed to be an opportunity to get some physical activity and see the sunrise seamlessly turned into an adventurous detour. Turning our mishap into a learning experience, we discovered the fields of boars that exist in the middle of Hyderabad (something I could never have imagined finding) and still had the chance to spend time with the friends who had already hiked up the mountain.

During my time in Hyderabad, I saw students perform tear-jerking slam poetry with Hyderabad locals and venture to find a beef tripe dish rumored to be served in the Old City neighborhood — their openness to new experiences was palpable. The same students who had struggled with transitions to college life during their first year in San Francisco were now in a completely different headspace. They had persisted through difficulty and were now excited about an internship they secured, a new relationship they were in, or finding a city that really “got them.”

Upon graduation, Minerva students will have lived across four different continents. Few people change their SIM cards in one lifetime as often as our students do in four years. Along with their adventures and incredible exposure to the world also comes the challenge of constantly testing their ability to adapt to it. What I am humbled by is our students’ tenacity and how it is made stronger by their openness to new experiences and their optimism that even the most challenging of circumstances will turn out for the best. In a time when divisiveness and insularity have become rampant, I find myself looking at young people, like our Minerva students, for inspiration.