Interview with Karan Nagpal, Oxford University

1. What according to you works better at an undergraduate level, a small liberal arts school or a larger university? Does having to meet a core curriculum turn out to be an annoyance in any way?

I went to a high school that had a large number of students. Therefore, being around thousands of people was a way of life. This is what lead me to apply to big universities in the US. However, after studying at St. Stephens in India where the community was rather close-knit, I feel that a smaller college works better. There’s always the trade-off between the prestige of a larger university and the close-knit community of a smaller college (luckily, St Stephen’s ticked both the boxes).

Talking about core curriculums. In Stephens we didn’t have an array of diverse subjects that we were required to study. We had our basic economics requirements and requirement for subjects, which were in some way related to what we were studying. However, I feel that the ‘liberal arts’ system and the strict core curriculum that follows it leads to a holistic development and I see no reason as to why it should be an annoyance.


2. All the students know that rankings ARE important. But, how important are they in your opinion?

I feel that rankings don’t provide a basis for deciding on one’s colleges but yes they do provide one with some amount of consolation. I did not pay too much heed to rankings while drawing up my college list, rather, I focused on other factors such as the quality of education provided at the undergrad level. Reading up on the websites, talking to college counselors, alumni and students is what helped me judge and choose my schools.

Even though I stayed back in India at Stephens I would like the prospective students to know that rankings should not be made the sole basis of one’s decisions, mainly because they are a function of the particular weighting scheme employed, so you must be aware of how the rankings are generated. Besides, consider how volatile they have been, what is in the top 5 now may not be there 4 years later. Of course, the consolation and ego boost they give can’t be underplayed.


3. While deciding on colleges what part did the geographical location (NE, Mid West, West, South) and setting (urban, rural, suburban, college town) play in your decision? Did your opinions regarding this fact change when you joined college?

When I was in high school, the location of the undergrad college didn’t seem to matter and one felt that one could deal with whatever weather came our way. But, after coming to Oxford for my grad school, I’ve realized that getting acclimatized to a town or city, which is distinctive from the place you have always lived in, can be hard. For eg: Oxford is a small city, which is quite rural as compared to, say, London. For someone who grew up in Delhi, which was always bustling and alive, this transition was a little difficult.


4. A beauty of the American education system is that you’re not required to commit to any subject the minute you join. Did this flexibility help you in anyway when you joined college?

I was pretty sure that I wanted to study Economics after high school and thankfully that interest still remains. I also felt that having the opportunity to make a ‘decision’ in college and having to make a choice came as a burden with the flexibility. I had a fair idea of what I wanted to do and didn’t want to confuse or put myself through the job of deciding a major. Therefor, focusing  only on economics while at Stephens didn’t feel as much of a constraint, and whatever little interest I had in other fields I made sure I read up enough to satisfy my intellectual curiosity.


5. How important was diversity to you when you started evaluating the US as an option? Have your notions regarding this factor changed over a period of time? What part does the ‘diversity’ angle play in the college lives of international students?

For me diversity was a very important aspect at the undergrad as well as the grad level. Having a diverse, or more international, set of people around helps you get an insight into various cultures and also makes transition into the college easier.

In Oxford, even though all students and faculty work within the department, we are all affiliated to one of the 38 colleges. The college is important for one’s social life and life outside of academics. I was fortunate to become member of a college with a large international student population. Therefore, it helped make my transition easier, there were no set groups or cliques that had to be broken into.


6. If there was one aspect of the Indian and UK education that you don’t appreciate and would want other students to look out for then what would that be?

Since the India system has, to a large extent, been based on the British system, one can criticise aspects common to both. One is the idea of a single set of exams at the end of the year, and not much emphasis on continuous testing.

Also, the Indian pedagogy is not critical enough, so the education system doesn’t focus as much on developing the student’s ability to argue or form a structured opinion.However, in the American and the British systems, such abilities are valued and nurtured.


7. Describe the personality of the student body at your college! Did the personality of the students and the environment of the college come as a shock to you? Do you feel that you have fit into the college community? 

St. Stephen’s was a rather intimate and close-knit community that tended to draw you in.  In Oxford, I was struck by my classmates’ strong work ethics, discipline and their ability to work very hard. Also, as I said, they have come from systems where their ability to critique and articulate opinions in a structured way has been developed to a larger extent.  No, these things weren’t really “shocks,” they were learning experiences, and yes, I suppose I managed to fit into the communities.