Home Author Journals Online to On Campus: The Unconventional College Life at IIT Kharagpur

Online to On Campus: The Unconventional College Life at IIT Kharagpur

by Nishita Singh
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IIT Kharagpur campus. (Photo by Manohar Manu on Unsplash)

The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead, casting a sterile glow on Nishita Singh’s cluttered desk. Through the laptop screen, a blurry professor droned on about complex algorithms. This wasn’t exactly the “college experience” Nishita envisioned for her freshman year at IIT Kharagpur. Visions of bustling lecture halls and late-night debates in the common room had been replaced by the monotony of virtual classrooms and pixelated faces. Yet, a spark of determination flickered in Nishita’s eyes. College life, pandemic or not, was bound to have its twists and turns, and she was determined to navigate them with her signature spirit.

This is Nishita’s Story.

It is December 2020, and the first COVID-19 wave is subsiding. 

I, along with roughly 1900 other fresh admits of IIT Kharagpur, am hopeful we’ll be able to visit our campus in a month or so. It’s been a week since the whole counselling and admissions process concluded. My college life is confined to a 32×30 screen.  So far, we’ve navigated the bureaucratic maze of admissions through an online portal, attended five different induction programs on YouTube and joined a hundred classrooms on MS Teams.

We’re forging friendships through WhatsApp groups. From behind the screen and under a blanket, feeling like I’m part of a community larger than myself is difficult. Other than the occasional virtual pat on the back by relatives over the phone, getting into an IIT doesn’t feel as grand as I thought it would.

The IIT KGP ‘24 displayed on my Instagram bio gives me quite the kick, though.

It is February 2021, and I have discovered Discord. I hop onto a voice call every night and play Among Us with fellow IITians I’ve met online. We discuss how life will be once we get to campus. I tell them I feel stunted and robbed of a traditional first year of college life. I tell them I visited IIT Kharagpur when I was nine. I don’t remember much except that the trees were giant, the air was crisp and all the roads were laced with touch-me-nots.

Campus, here I come!

It is December 2021, and I am packing for campus. I am thrilled to take my first steps into adulthood. I anticipate spending every waking hour with individuals I’ve so far only seen from the neck up on my laptop screen. I am ready to be shaped and transformed by the place that ever so graciously has accepted me under its wing. 

I stuff all things student-y, including but not limited to a pen stand, a kettle and a guitar I have strummed a total of three times. I hug my mother goodbye as two friends help me with my luggage. 

On the way to my room, I recall where I packed the fairy lights that I planned to put up. I step inside and see what I should have expected from a government-run institution with two years of maintenance hiatus. The room has a seepage stench. There are big branches of termites along one of the walls and the tube lights don’t work. This looks like a room for two — there are two tube lights, two tables, two LAN ports and two windows. 

But there are three beds. 

With no space to step foot in, the size of the room looks suffocating. It turns out the IITs increased their intake of female students but never bothered to upgrade their infrastructure to accommodate them.

Nevertheless, I still cling to optimism and reassure myself.

It’s not about the place but the people, right?

Besides, I don’t plan to be cooped up in my room anyway. And just with that final grasp for a silver lining comes the final blow. A surge in COVID cases forces the campus into lockdown again. Where I planned to explore 2100 acres of campus, I couldn’t visit the friend next door. 

In two days, I pack up for home again. I drag my trolley and sit on a bench by the roadside, waiting for my cab. Plants with little bipinnate leaves are within my reach. I touch them with the tip of my shoes,  and the leaves don’t curl. 

They’re not touch-me-nots! I wonder if the touch-me-nots were ever truly there or if I just built them up in my head. 

Locked up, yet again

It is January 2022, and this lockdown is not fun and games and Dalgona coffee. It is bleak and I feel deeply disconnected. I watch the documentary on college life at IIT Kharagpur, Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream. The film plays like a fever dream. I cling to one of the dialogues like a safety blanket.

“You are confined in a place, and you have to make the best out of it.”

Back on campus, for real this time

It is March 2022, and the campus is open. The socio-cultural societies are back on and the sports grounds are mowed. In the two months remaining in the semester, I reclaim facets of myself that had been buried during the three long years of JEE preparation. 

Thus begins the most chaotic chapter of my college life. I perform a very progressive, Gen-Z-esque, feminist poem in front of some thirty 60-year-old alumni and the director of IIT Kharagpur. I find a precious community of fellow readers. I co-write the script for a short film competing in an inter-hostel competition. I attend Kshitij, the tech-fest, and watch robots battling it until one of them is knocked over. I visit the supercomputer facility on campus. And, I ask out a cute nerd who solves Wordle with me every night. 

The magnificence of this place finally starts to rub off on me.

The career conundrums

It is May 2022, and I have created my first LinkedIn account. 

Summer vacations are on. I read the rejection email from the last internship program I applied to. My boyfriend has published a paper on machine learning in the ReScience journal. A friend is in Tel Aviv for his fully-funded research internship. Another is busy boosting her rating on competitive programming platforms. I dive headfirst into a LinkedIn rabbit hole and drool over “Dear Connections, I have the pleasure to announce … ” posts. Success stories pile in front of me, one after the other. I feel certain it is too late for me to be one of them. I am left questioning my path and my abilities. 

I’ve been told, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Here I am at IIT Kharagpur, the rightest room. No one tells me how to make peace with being the mediocre one in this room.

Seniors to the rescue!

It is July 2022, and classes have resumed. The professors teach like they love what they do. Their passion is contagious. We’re learning about the exciting advancements in biotechnology — how we can fiddle with genes to make streetlights out of glow-in-the-dark trees or trick bacteria into producing human insulin. For the first time in years, something speaks to me. 

Dare I say, it sparks joy

It is August 2022, and my Facebook account features a Taylor Swift lyric. It catches the eye of a fellow Swiftie and alumna who’s now a researcher in Germany. She slides into my DMs and we talk about Taylor and then about college life. 

I open up to her about my one-sided affair with biotechnology and feel like I’m falling behind in the career race. In response, she offers me a roadmap to navigate through this uncertainty. She says, “Go to seniors who are open to talking and ask them for their story. Not fundae, stories.” And so I do. I hear stories shared with honesty, carrying failures with as much dignity as achievements. 

Beyond stories, I find a community and a support system that I can lean on should I ever stumble.

It is July 2023, and I am returning from my 3-month internship in Canada. The maple flag flutters with the wind at the Montreal airport. After the airport security frenzy, I take a moment to reflect on my journey. I return with immense gratitude for the opportunity and a solidified commitment to research. 


An overview of the “Illumination” competition. (Photo courtesy of the author)

It is November 2023, the morning of Diwali. Staff and students are running around in the hall, cleaning the walls, putting up diyas and making flower rangolis. Out on the lawn stands a towering 14-foot mat of bamboo. For weeks on end, students have toiled through countless nights, affixing roughly 8000 lamps to this structure. This is the “Illumination” competition, affectionately known as Illu, a key experience for the textbook KGPian college life. It is a cherished tradition unique to IIT Kharagpur, setting it apart from all other IITs. As evening falls, a signal from a student heralds the arrival of the judges. In the span of a few minutes, the students light up the lamps, illuminating a scene ready in time for the judges. 

Things have a way of falling into place

It is February 2024, and I am awaiting news about my applications for internships for the upcoming summer. My junior informs me of his acceptance into the Canada program that I participated in last year. He thanks me for my guidance. After a round of congratulations, I give him the lowdown on visas and booking flights, sharing all the tips and tricks I picked up along the way. 

I wrap up the chat and celebrate this little “full circle” moment of my college life. As I put my phone aside, an email notification pops up, “Congratulations, you have been nominated for the DAAD WISE 2024 scholarship…” 

Nishita shut her laptop with a sigh, a flicker of the pre-pandemic campus flashing in her mind’s eye – the cacophony of laughter from the quad, the late-night study sessions fueled by chai, the thrill of cheering on her hostel during a pulsating inter-dorm competition. A smile tugged at her lips. College might not have been what she expected, but amidst the challenges, Nishita was discovering a new kind of resilience, a newfound appreciation for the little moments, and a fierce hope that the vibrant campus life she craved awaited her just around the corner.

Every individual’s journey is a story worth telling, and at Mindbrews, we’re just getting started.

Word: Bipinnate
Sentence within the article: Plants with little bipinnate leaves are within my reach
Fun Fact: comes from the Latin word “pinnatus,” meaning “feathered” or “winged.”

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