Ep1. Pilot ft. Palak Sharma | UNCUT Talks
Palak Sharma is a consultant at the World Bank, currently working in Washington DC. She holds a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts (focused on economics) from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune and a master’s in international relations and economics from Paul H. Nitze School Of Advanced International Relations, John Hopkins University. She is the co-founder of Happy Triangle Foundation, a non-profit dedicated towards education for underprivileged children and women in Mumbai. She has also previously interned with Smile Foundation where she found the inspiration to teach.
Her programmes focused on post-school workshops and learning events, which have been discontinued due to social distancing guidelines. In order to fill the gap of active story-telling and teacher-student interaction, she started an english language magazine called Happy Triangle Magazine. It began in August 2020 and now reaches 200 readers every month. It aims to provide a form of learning-aid during the lockdown, especially for those who may lack tech-learning facilities. It is curated to assist English reading and comprehension skills for readers between the ages of 8 to 15 years. The magazine is distributed for no charge and focuses on teaching young children in a way that engages them in new conversations and ideas.
1. What is the college admission process like in the United States after an undergraduate degree?
As one can imagine, the admission process was long and tedious, but can entirely depend on where you are applying and what they are looking for. My bachelor’s from a four-year program at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts gave me a unique research and writing experience, which helped my application. After my bachelor's, I also had one year of experience that allowed me to commit to my chosen subjects. The admissions process depends on various factors since many applicants are equally or far more qualified. I found that it’s essential to share your story, hobbies, and personal influences because everything outside your traditional application is often more critical.
2.You took a sabbatical after your bachelor’s, what was it like?
After my bachelor’s, I wasn’t clear about my plans and prospects. I knew I liked foreign relations, economics, and teaching, and these can be entirely different worlds. I started working at a think tank but continued to look for ways to be creative. After the think tank internship I presented my research on Buddhist Economics at Bhutan’s Centre for Bhutan Studies Conference. I was beyond thrilled to meet and learn from Dr. Saamdu Chetri who was and is one of the most impressive and kind people I've ever met.
After returning from Bhutan, I eventually started planning workshop ideas (to start the non-profit) and enrolled in a Buddhist Philosophy Certificate Course at K J Somaiya in Mumbai. I also joined a weekend Indian classical music course during this time. I am fortunate that I could take the time to pursue different interests and schools of thought. These personal interests helped me learn what I wanted to focus on moving forward.
For example, in my current job, I am working on projects that deal with economics and energy prospects for areas facing conflict and violence. Many of my family members had been displaced by conflict and violence in Northern India. And during my gap year I had more time to read on Indian history, which inter-linked my interests in studying about my family’s migration and helped me prepare for my current work. So looking back, I found my gap year extremely valuable in recognising my motivations and learning in that direction.
3. Did you plan to do a postgraduate degree from outside of India?
No, but I am glad that I could be comfortable in prioritising my subjects and I found that combination at SAIS.
4. Talking about your post graduation, can you tell us about your master’s?
My masters focused on three things: economics and energy policy as my concentrations (also known as majors) and South Asian studies as a minor. For my last semester’s project, I undertook a study trip to Nepal to study the India-Nepal relationship with a group of SAIS students and professors. At the end of this trip all of us presented our papers and results from the trip.
During my master’s, I was fortunate to work with the university’s communications office and intern with the World Resources Institute, where I could use and work on my writing skills. As President of South Asia Students Association, I was glad to get the opportunity to organise events on South Asian history and art.
These experiences were a great addition to studying the intersection between energy and economics in South Asia. The social aspect of interacting with, and learning from, an international amalgamation of students, scholars and professors was central to the master’s experience.
5. Since Uncut is a public speaking platform a lot of people are really interested in such events but at the same time are scared of it. How has your experience been with public speaking? How was the Hindi debate at Yale University?
I have always been nervous about public speaking; it just is a matter of more or less.
I started debating only in college, though in school, I spent a lot of time on stage (singing and dancing), so those experiences helped me be comfortable on stage. The Yale Hindi debate was fun because I was excited to debate in my first language. During that semester, I was learning Urdu and my professor shared the debate’s ‘Hindi native speakers application’ with me. It was a thrill to listen and watch so many native and non-native speakers breaking Hindi speakers' stereotypes. I spoke against the motion of “power always corrupts” (satta toh hamesha hi brasht karti hai). I was glad that my professor (Wafadar Hussein) helped me and we celebrated with masala chai after I won.
6. With regards to your work with the Global Shapers Community (Pune) and the Smile Foundation (Mumbai), how did you educate the children about issues as sensitive as gender inequality and climate change?
It was far less complicated than what it might seem to be. Children are naturally curious, and their questions always guided the classroom discussion. Thus, it was important that the students not only listen to the speaker but also discuss their ideas with their classmates. By prioritising team and group activities, I could gain a clearer picture of what they think of the topic at hand and create a comfortable space for their voice. Re-arranging a classroom from students facing teachers, but students facing each other, helped me create an environment where they felt comfortable having an open dialogue.
I learned that one could maintain an engaging conversation with 50 students if you can establish a connection, almost like a musical flow. A connected conversation did not mean we were talking simultaneously. It only meant that we were looking in the same direction and acknowledging each other’s questions.
7. Tell us something about Happy Triangle Foundation, how was the process and what was the inspiration behind it?
After my bachelor's, I wasn’t sure what I wanted my next step to be, but I knew I wanted to teach since working at Smile Foundation had helped me explore that aspect. The month before we started the non-profit, I presented my research on Buddhist economics, which pushed me to create educational content on household stories and climate change.
I am fortunate that my mother was invested in starting a non-profit to facilitate an educational space for children and women. Her keen engagement has kept me active in finding new ideas to engage with young students during this pandemic. It was great to have her lead the way and allow me the opportunity to create content and engage.
8. What is it like working in a global organization like The World Bank?
I began my position with the bank this August and I am learning a lot. I am with the Fragility, Conflict, and Violence (FCV) team, and we focus on the 14 countries that are most affected by forced displacement. It’s a great experience to study refugee funding and analyse how energy and economic support is often central to providing essential services to those in need. The support provided for projects targeting forced displacement covers multi-disciplinary approaches, from understanding the trauma of displacement to recognising the required steps towards recovery and sustainable results.
I am fortunate that I am part of a supportive team that is passionate about creating effective solutions by working with governments, multilateral institutions, and vulnerable communities. Our projects serve vulnerable communities of all genders, religious backgrounds, skin colours, castes, and ages, that have been facing unseen challenges even before and more so during this pandemic. I am grateful to work on projects that reach some of the most vulnerable populations on the planet, while I find the best ways to contribute.
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