Finding opportunity through doubt

 “There is no minimum age on the ability to add value” – Nick Williams

“There is no minimum age on the ability to add value” – Nick Williams

As humans we tend to devalue ourselves and the amount we can contribute. As a first-year student, it’s natural to have an attitude of devaluing yourself and the amount you can contribute. Often lacking the technical requirements, first-year students are told that our time for internships and research opportunities will come. My experience with The Walking School Bus over the past year has taught me that this assumption is completely wrong. There is no minimum age on the ability to add value, and I consider myself fortunate that I was provided the chance to not only show TWSB and its Leadership what I could offer, but also show myself.

I was first introduced to The Walking School Bus at an event in the fall of my first year in the Bachelor of International Economics program at UBC. Impressed by the fact that all TWSB projects were supported by economic research, I wanted to get involved, and after speaking with Aaron, he immediately put me to work. My initial task was to look at the school bus model being used in Uganda, which provides additional revenue for the community by acting as a taxi when not transporting children to and from school. In researching more profitable and sustainable revenue-generation models in a Ugandan context, I also set out to look for ways to mitigate moral hazard, the economic phenomenon where someone is willing to take more risks when they don’t bear the costs of such actions. We were specifically concerned with driver actions and wanted to ensure that as TWSB partnered with more communities, we wouldn’t have to worry about stakeholders pocketing revenue or damaging the bus because they didn’t feel ownership over the costs.

 Riding with the students on their way home

Riding with the students on their way home

After researching the school bus model in a Ugandan context, I was met with a unique opportunity to travel with TWSB to India to work to understand if the model that has been working in Uganda could also apply in the Indian context. I was then faced with a new challenge, endeavoring to understand a new cultural and economic context where the school-bus model had yet to be applied. In the weeks leading up to the expedition, I would leverage many of the resources in my life to try and plan out various econometric models that I intended to gather data for when on the ground. I even went so far as to take an econometric textbook that I could barely understand out from the library. While I felt prepared, I was constantly nagged by the question: what can a guy with no knowledge beyond first-year economics truly offer.

Upon my arrival in New Delhi, it began to dawn on me that my well-thought out, data-driven models might not fit the realities of life on the ground, let alone life in a country with 1.3 billion people, and I began to understand that my work at HPS Suyalgarh would require a very different approach. This was no easy task: all those doubts that I mentioned earlier came rushing back as I stared in the face of the challenge of piecing together the story of this community. At this point, I have to credit the amazing team I was able to travel to India with. Even though I was the youngest expeditioner on the trip by a longshot, I always felt that I had their confidence, and I was never treated as lesser because I’d been around the sun a few less times. Having this level of support encouraged me to eagerly dive into my work, devising an approach whereby I instigated countless interviews with community stakeholders to better understand the various dynamics and challenges existing at HPS Suyalgarh and its community. I spoke with bus drivers, taxi drivers, school staff and other community members to gain as good an understanding of the situation in the school community as possible. One important aspect of this was identifying the cultural trends and customs that would play an important role in determining whether our school bus revenue-generation model could work. The data gathered when hopping off the bus at rural gas stations or riding with the students on their taxi ride home while tracking their route, would serve to ‘colour in’ our image and understanding of the community. On the ground, research isn’t so much about data points or regression models as it is about people; the community leaders I worked with at HPS were the true indispensable highlights of my research experience. They truly opened up to me, an outsider, helping me comprehend the financial situation of the school and the customs of the region, spending hours answering my incessant questioning. While I had difficulty understanding how they could put up with me for so long at first, when the school administrators embraced me as we said our goodbyes, I realized how much faith and confidence they were placing in me, some 19-year-old economics student from halfway around the world.

 One of many interviews I would have with the school headmaster

One of many interviews I would have with the school headmaster

If I’ve learned anything from my experience working in Uttarakhand, it’s that qualifications don’t have to serve as limitations. As I go about working on my research paper in coffee shops across Vancouver, I no longer suffer from the same doubts about my work with TWSB. For each question I asked and each kilometer I covered around HPS, I gained a deeper understanding of how best to implement TWSB’s sustainable school-bus model in an Uttarakhand context, keeping in mind the specific cultural and socioeconomic dynamics which deeply impact it. What is even more promising is that there are so many isolated schools like HPS Suyalgarh in India and the world that could potentially benefit from TWSBs school-bus model, and I hope that my research can help support similar systems for rural, isolated schools like HPS. What writing this blog has shown me, and I hope has shown you, is that it is possible for one to add value no matter what their age: if you can show that you’re passionate enough and put yourself out there, even if you’re not so sure of yourself, this experience has taught me that your opportunity will come.