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Small town girl’s big leap into city

- Ankita Prakash

The best part of being a public speaker is the “chills” that you get when your session is about to begin, but what stays with you is the satisfaction you feel when it’s over. Living in a small town, some 20 km away from the bustling city of Kolkata, my ventures into the city were mostly during the world-famous Durga Puja. They say a small-town culture is much different from the one in a big city, and they are right, I think.

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Your world ends at the borders of your town and you get all that you need there itself. That was the scenario 10 years before when I was in Class V and was taking my first steps into this world of public speaking. My school held an annual “Talent Search Competition” where I always used to take prizes back home in extempore speech and debate. All year long, I used to wait for this competition so that I could speak in front of people, other than occasional gigs in the morning assembly. I remember very clearly a speech I made in front of the school on Independence Day 2014, which was lauded by everyone. I can still hear the concluding line ringing in my ears, “...and most importantly, we need to protect the women to take this nation to greater heights because India is a woman herself. ” and the loud roar of claps that followed after. Such instances happened successfully until the end of standard 10th when I had to get admitted to another school.

In standard 11, you come across this most important decision of choosing your stream and being good in studies, my choice was clear, it was supposed to be Science. I did not really get much time to pursue my public speaking skills, neither did I focus on them as for the next 2 years, I already had too much on my platter - entrance exams, board exams, deciding colleges, branch of study and whatnot. Not willing to pursue engineering, I landed in St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), one of the best colleges in the city of Kolkata, willing to get a Bachelor of Science degree in Statistics.

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The once-a-year trip to the city became a daily one, and along with this new life, came challenges that I was so not prepared for. As I mentioned earlier, I had a small-town upbringing and I could not take to the ways of this big city. I found it difficult to connect with my classmates. I had been in leadership positions in my schools and hence wanted to take up such roles in college as well. But I found myself lost and confused, with no one to show me and guide me through. The subject of Statistics was also new to me and I found it difficult to cope with it. In spite of everything that was happening around me, it seemed that I had the opportunity to restart my public speaking career. And that is when I got my biggest blow. In school, debates meant you write a speech, for or against the motion, present it before the audience, answer the counter questions and your part is done. When I auditioned for the debating society of my college, I got to know that you don’t write a hard and fast speech, you make your points on the go and keep presenting them with the flow of the debate, counter questioning and answering as a proper part of a team. I was unprepared and expectedly, did not get selected. It totally seemed that my public speaking career was over.

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Struggling with college studies, peer pressure and exhaustion from daily travel, I was looking for an escape. And this escape came across me in the 2nd year of college in the form of the community of Google Developers Group, aka GDG, Kolkata.

DevFest 2018 was their first event I attended. And then I realized that this was where I needed to be. I used to regularly attend their events, but even then I used to find myself out of place. This community comprised students and professionals from engineering backgrounds only, and being a pure science student I felt that I might not ever be able to be a part of it. I found it difficult to interact with people and never felt confident enough to stand up and answer a question. But when there is a will, there is always a way. I slowly started talking to other students that came to such meetups, and in some time, I was even interacting with the organizers.

In July 2019, the Call for Speakers for DevFest 2019 was open and I was preparing to submit a proposal. I was contacted by one of the organizers, whom I consider my mentor and go to in every dire situation, to take this session at one of their regular meet-ups. I thought this would be the best ever opportunity to restart my public speaking career. I was supposed to speak in front of a comparatively small crowd of 50 people, but I was shivering like anything. I was facing a crowd after almost 3 years and I could feel the nervousness. I managed to pull off the session, though I forgot a few of the points that I had planned to cover. I was encouraged by everyone out there, in spite of my mistakes, that’s the best part of a community, and then I got the chance to a part of the Panel Discussion at DevFest 2019. I was the youngest panelist and spoke in front of a crowd of 600+ people. But just a week before that, one of the best experiences of my life happened.

In June 2019, Google India had rolled out applications for the Explore ML program, for college students who would have to host sessions in and around their college on Machine Learning. I had been interested in Machine Learning and Data Science for a while then and thought of testing out my hand. The main criteria of selection was a 60-second video where the student had to explain a technical concept. I cannot put into words the joy and excitement I felt when I got the selection email. I went for a 2-day workshop to the Google Bangalore office, where we were given sessions on how to better facilitate and explain technical topics in a much easier way. As a part of my role as a university facilitator, I took sessions for 200+ students in 3 colleges, one for Women Tech Makers Kolkata, and a few more online sessions. As of April 2020, I have taken 10 offline sessions and 8 online sessions, and I am pretty sure the count will grow a lot more.

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Now that I am in the final semester of my graduation, I have a few guidelines laid out for me to follow while moving ahead in my career and life. I hope to keep my public speaking gigs alive. I will not try to fit in a place I don’t feel comfortable in, after three years of college I have only three friends from that place whom I talk to on a daily basis, whereas I have innumerable friends from communities. One of my biggest takeaways from whatever I experienced in the past few years is that it’s never over until you consider it as over. So, yes, whatever be the situation, I will try not to give up and make the best out of it. It might take time, but the things that I want to happen, I will surely make them happen.

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In the article, you have mentioned about your occasional visits to Calcutta. How tough was it for a small-town girl to adjust to a big city?

Initially, it was really tough to adjust to a big city. The concept -- of going out every other day for lunch or dinner, partying, clubbing, these – all these I wasn’t that accustomed to. I found the mentality of the students around me to be different from mine as they don’t stick to each other during hardships. Most of them already knew each other from their school days through different tuitions or fests, and I went to college with not a single face known to me.

Also, we are sure your small-town upbringing must have helped you on many occasions. Any interesting anecdotes you can share?

Everyone that I get to know seems excited about knowing what is special or different about my town, so I have a great time describing my town to people. Since I travel by local train daily, I have also been asked quite a number of times to bring articles or food items that are sold on trains.

Tell us about your years at St Xavier’s College?

I don’t have much to say about my college life. I had a lot of expectations when I got into college since St. Xavier's College is the best in Kolkata. But college life turned out to be a bit dull for me compared to the fun I had back in school days. Frankly, I couldn't cope up with the curriculum or the lectures. However, the things that went on gradually and later I started enjoying myself.

And the defining moment has to be the DevFest 2019. Looking back, how important that was in your life and career?

I feel DevFest 2019 is the most important point in my career as it gave me my confidence back and made me believe in myself in a way I never did before. I was shivering when I started to speak and held the mike with both my hands. I shared the stage with a Googler and GDG leads from all over the country. When I got down, I was appreciated by everyone for talking about my inhibitions so freely in front of such a huge crowd. That event also gave me an identity in the local tech community of Kolkata and I have been able to make a lot of connections due to that event. I have attached the YouTube link to the Panel Discussion. You can find me speaking from 3:00 min and 10:00 mins into the video Click here for the video

How did you shoot a 60-sec video to send to Google India for your Explore ML programme? Tell us more about the programme and what content you put in for the video?

I have attached a link to the video with which I applied for the Explore ML program. I explained the concept of cloud computing using the example of a child who wants to eat mangoes. I prepared slides and was able to get the video ready after almost 10+ retakes.
The 2-day workshop was a fully sponsored trip to Google's Bangalore office. This was the first time I boarded an airplane and the fact that it was sponsored by Google made it even more special. I got to interact with a lot of students from all around the country and am still in touch with them. We had all planned to bring some famous delicacy from our cities and had a great time enjoying all of it together. The sessions were conducted by Google employees and one of them had even spoken at Google I/O, which is the biggest developer conference in the world. We also had ice breaker sessions which were a lot of fun. Click here

As a part of your role as a university facilitator, you took sessions for 200+ students in multiple colleges. How do you evaluate the overall standards of the students and what surprised you the most about them?

As a part of my role as a university facilitator, I conducted both online and offline sessions. And what surprised me was that students were interactive in an online session than offline sessions. It led me to believe that students don’t have enough confidence to speak up and since I went through similar situations in my 1st year of college, I know how lack of confidence feels and hence I always try to make my sessions as interactive as possible.
I feel the students are knowledgeable and have the hunger to learn more and more, to grow and develop but they lack the confidence, and at times, the platform to show their skills.

So what next? What are your career plans?

I plan to get some work experience in the field of Data Science and Machine Learning for the next few years. I also hope to pursue a degree in Masters after that. I want to continue my public speaking career alongside, and take more and more sessions. A personal goal is to start debating again, as and when time seems fit.

Finally, list out five of your habits of which you are proud of?

  • I have recently started doing some physical exercise daily because I found myself to be turning unfit.
  • I read books regularly, non-fiction, science fiction, and thrillers mainly, that is a habit I have maintained since school days and I am really proud of it.
  • I keep track of data science articles and find new ideas to write some of my own whenever I get the time.
  • I often watch webinars or online sessions and attend local meetups to keep myself updated with the regular developments in the field of Machine Learning.
  • Whenever I feel stressed out or pressurized, I try avoiding work and studies for some time and destress myself by watching movies or art, because I believe mental health is as important as physical health.

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