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Amrin Kareem: "No one adapts like BTech students"

"I think I have always wanted to do everything and be everywhere and have a little of everything, probably because I had parents who encouraged taking chances."

That line sums up Amrin Kareem, an Electrical Engineer who graduated few months ago from Govt Model Engineering College, Kochi. Working at Robert Bosch India, she likes long walks, cloudy days, good books and cups of steaming coffee. In a touching piece, she recounts her journey to Team Fayz.

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THAT WONDERFUL PLACE CALLED SCHOOL

I did my schooling at Al Ameen Public School, a place to which I am indebted for all I have learnt and achieved so far. I guess that holds true for most people. That’s where I first got to know a taste of community work, led a club, organised talks, contests and book weeks, presided over transparent assemblies as Head Girl and even hosted a press conference with media persons. After 14 years of rigorous schooling, it was a great honour to walk out of school, having been declared as the best student. It’s not like I hadn’t failed in subjects, or had issues with teachers, or got into nasty brawls and received embarrassing punishments. There have been good days, bad days, ugly days and disastrous days; but the most important thing at school was to keep going.

In fact, that motivation still drives me when I have the blues. Schools have plenty of fuel, at that. Opportunities are plenty: you just have to be there and garner the strength to go in and do your thing. It’s not easy to start all over in college, although, with a strong will, you can practically accomplish anything. There was this time when we had to publish class magazines by year-end, similar to the school magazine. As a bunch of 15-year-olds, we collaborated and strived really hard to make things work within deadlines. The reward was in the shared experiences that we had and the friendships that grew stronger. I think I have always wanted to do everything and be everywhere and have a little bit of everything, probably because I had parents who encouraged taking chances. Taking chances led me from a frightened teenager to a fierce debater, and never giving up helped me stay on top of my academics until the day I graduated as school topper in all my subjects. And then again, not all days are the same. Some days, I miss that attitude. Teachers who know just how hard to push, friends who love your success and parents who always have your back; I believe those are anyone’s dream superpowers

TO THE COLLEGE

I had never imagined I would do engineering. I had opted Computer Science stream in 11th grade, and although I loved the subject, I didn't want to be an engineer. I had always thought I'd do literature. Even when I joined an entrance coaching centre like everyone else and took my KEAM and JEE tests, I was just going with the flow of things. I didn't realise that I would be actually going into four years of B.Tech education very soon. And after some coaxing from parents and the usual, I became roll no. 12 in EEE department at MEC. Admissions done and dusted, classes began in August 2015. It was a few days later that we realised our university had changed. Our college was not affiliated to CUSAT as we had expected. This was a serious blow. But trust me when I say this: no one adapts like B.Tech students. We quickly move on. Academics apart, there is so much life within the small campus boundaries of MEC. At the end of my first year at college, I submitted a poem that got published in the college magazine. A few days later, I got invited to work with a charity organisation called T.H.A.N.A.L, founded by students of MEC and operating in and around Kochi, as a content creator. I was beyond happy when I got that call. Activities of the League of Compassion in school were still fresh in my mind; I soon became an active contributor at T.H.A.N.A.L. and went on to lead content and storytelling in subsequent years. It was around this time that I also started volunteering at the National Service Scheme unit of our college. During this period, we organised a seven-day camp for the volunteers, completely immersed ourselves in community work and made contacts all over college. I began looking for other volunteering opportunities, like online campaigns at UN Volunteers India and V-Force. Back then (it still is), it was seen as a matter of utmost pride to be associated with Excel, the annual national-level techno-managerial fest organised by MEC. In my second year, I worked with the marketing team to raise funds for the event. I also joined the organising team of .issue!, one of the flagship events where celebrities and social activists come together to debate issues of collective concern. One thing I love about our college is how much senior students take effort to involve the juniors and give them exposure and advice at every opportunity.

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I remember how, on one such occasion, one of the office-bearers of Excel told us that one day we would be valued, not for marks, but for the skills to independently host something as big as Excel. It was around that time that the college blog Expressoh! was initiated by our senior students. It was an ambitious project, and I hopped right in. It is from the time at Expressoh! that I learned the basics of SEO and content marketing. After almost one-and-a-half years of brewing content that made readers want more, we had to stop operation and part ways.In my third year, everything picked up speed. I was a co-organiser of the first MUN to be hosted by an engineering college in Kerala, titled MECMUN.

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I was associated with talk events, handling delegates, attending events, preparing media reports and working on marketing deals like never before. It was probably because I wanted to be that person who does kind of everything. I felt happy in that place.Meanwhile, I kept my passion for writing alive by freelancing at startups and starting my own blogs for prose and poetry. I even came up with a page for tiny stories and haikus, but eventually put it on hold after working on it for a year.

By then it was time to take the reins of Electrical Minds Forum, the club driven by the EEE department. As head of content and strategy, I managed a team that ran Transients, the official blog, and served as editor of the department newsletter of the same name. That position helped me learn and understand the legacy of the club that we were fortunate to have been a part of. At EMF, we also hosted workshops and talks with renowned industrialists, but more plans went unrealised because of tight academic schedules.

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TINKERHUB

It was around then that I got associated with a startup based out of Kochi. I was helping them with business proposals and fundraising plans as a content manager and doubling up as a community manager for their communities across several languages. Had it not been for some unfortunate circumstances, the project would have actually taken off, but it didn't. However, it turned out to be a great learning experience for me.That is also where I met Nitin, an alumnus of CUSAT SOE, who introduced me to TinkerHub Foundation. TinkerHub Foundation is a non-profit organisation that works to provide engineering students and graduates with learning opportunities via peer to peer learning and self-learning.

The community is a buzzing hub of tinkerers, makers, designers, poets and thinkers. In my fourth year, I was selected to follow as the Talks Manager for the 19th edition of Excel. Thanks to those who considered me worthy, I got the opportunity to conceptualize and host talk sessions featuring anyone relevant to a college audience. With a great team, we even pulled off a national level blog/vlog competition in association with Youth Ki Awaaz Campus Watch. I had the time of my life forming teams full of people bursting with energy, arranging meetings, scheduling events and following up with speakers. Among those who talked at our sessions were Vicky Roy, Anmol Rodriguez, Nayana Shyam and Mehar MP, the co-founder of TinkerHub Foundation among other big names from the social, cultural and technological landscape of India.

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After listening to Mehar's session, I began thinking about technology learning initiatives in Kerala and the (in)adequacy of college education for engineering graduates. Eventually, after several conversations, I signed up for a role in the media team at TinkerHub Foundation. Now, I create and curate stories and content for blogs and social media with a small team of dedicated volunteers that have reached over 16K readers. All through the ups and downs of college and side projects, other things happened: like debate competitions and paper presentations, house wars during college arts, publishing the annual magazine and doing internships. At the end of four years, I have come to realise that I had grown so much inside the small campus as much as the campus had grown inside me.

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NOT ADVICE, JUST A GUIDANCE

- Academics is important: It is essential to know the concepts of your basic subjects. A good academic record helped me come across as a goal-oriented person both at placements and even out of college.

- Timetables actually help: When you lose yourself in work, organise it. I've derived tremendous benefits from prepared schedules to complete my tasks on time. And sticking to those schedules and action plans helped me stay focused and motivated constantly.

- Be kind: Kindness is a boomerang. Being kind to peers, parents and teachers will come back to you in completely unexpected ways.

- Do a lot of things, but do one thing at a time. If you can't focus, then all your work will stall. And that does not always end well.

A CHAT WITH AMRIN KAREEM

Of all the achievers/people we have featured so far, only you talked about the importance of quality schooling. How important is school education in shaping the life and career of an individual? If you can elaborate.

Why I stressed on the importance of school so much is probably because my parents stressed on it, too. They even left my dad's hometown and shifted to Edappally where my school was located. At school, you learn a lot of things about yourself. I figured out I liked reading after listening to my Malayalam teacher talk about Robinson Crusoe in class. My dad got the book for me the very next day. My English teachers were bent on correcting my accent and grammar after they realised I liked speaking English. My librarian would allow me to sneak 2 or 3 books inspite of the strict rules limiting books to students at 1. School is where I tried and failed at dancing (even after my parents hired a personal dance trainer for one school event) and still had the courage to go up and dance again the next year. I had a lot of motivated people around me, like my mom who would bug me to participate in all talent fairs at school and out of school. God, if she hadn't done that, I wouldn't even have known what I was good at. One thing I've come to understand is that, at school, there's plenty of time. That kind of time will never be available to you, anytime later in life. There's a certain level of freedom to be try and fail, too, which you won't get as you keep on growing. But the attitude to take up something with love and pursue it, that's what makes the trying worthwhile.

You have also stressed about maintaining a good academic record while many others stress the importance of attending tech meet-ups, Kaggle and other skill building efforts outside the campus. What's your take about that?

Doing side projects and building amazing stuff outside the course framework is absolutely necessary to grow skills for a career. In fact, those who do not explore tech outside the curriculum stand to lose much in the way of their career and learning. However, as long as our current academic system exists, I think a consistent academic performance is important, not as a yardstick of a person's intelligence, but as a statement about their personality.

Tell us about your stint at TinkerHub? If you can also tell more about TinkerHub and how aspirational students can join...

No, I have heard about TinkerHub from Nitin Vasanth, entrepreneur and one of its earliest members. For some months, I was just one of the members on their WhatsApp community, paying passive attention to discussions and community events. After I became familiar with the story of Mehar, the co-founder of TinkerHub, he was invited as a guest speaker at Excel 2018. I think we were properly introduced to each other after he read one of my articles on Medium. Later, I joined the TH media team as storytelling lead

Fun question. You like to have long walks and good books. Amid such a busy hectic life techies usually lead, where do you get time to take long walks? How do you find the balance?

Currently, I run a small team of passionate people, who prepare interviews for inspiring youngsters in tech, follow up and curate stories of students who took up self learning, stories of how TH events happen, so on. TinkerHub's blog runs on Medium with a readership that has crossed 16k cumulatively. Our media team hopes to accomplish much more to get the word out about a technology learning culture.

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