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Roll call of brilliance

For 129 years, the JN Tata Endowment has enabled some of India’s brightest minds to pursue their passion for learning — and their dreams

Vinod Mudliar had just earned his engineering degree from Mumbai University and was getting ready for a corporate career when he was diagnosed with early-stage cancer. During the course of his subsequent treatment, the Navi Mumbai resident experienced firsthand the role played by counsellors in helping cancer patients cope with the disease. Impressed and inspired, Mr Mudliar decided to change tack and pursue a career in counselling. Issue was, he needed money to get re-educated.

In 2017, Mr Mudliar approached the JN Tata Endowment (JNTE) for a scholarship to pursue a master’s in counselling from University of Santa Clara in California, USA. After finishing the course — and now a certified counselling psychologist — he returned to India and co-founded Inner Calling, an organisation that works on a range of concerns related to mental health.

Mr Mudliar is sure his objective of becoming a counsellor came true principally due to the support he got from JNTE. “Receiving the scholarship meant I could realise my dream of contributing to the field of cancer care and mental health,” he says.

The individual grants programme helped Vinod Mudliar pursue a masters from Santa Clara University in the United States
The individual grants programme helped Vinod Mudliar pursue a master's from Santa Clara University in the United States

Mr Mudliar is among the 5,500-plus students who have benefitted from the Endowment, set up in 1892 by Jamsetji Tata, the Founder of the Tata group. The earliest philanthropic undertaking of the Tatas, JNTE was born with a corpus of 2.5 million donated by Mr Tata. It’s full name — The JN Tata Endowment Scheme for the Higher Education of Indians — spelled out its mission to help mould talented young Indians to be of service to a nation seeking self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

The Endowment has stayed true to its purpose, enabling meritorious Indians to pursue higher studies at some of the best universities in the world. Mr Tata wanted the brightest young minds in the country to improve their prospects through further education. As he said: “What advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”

The first beneficiary of funding support provided by JNTE was a woman, Freany Cama, who went to Britain in 1892 — funded by a grant of 10,000 — to study gynaecology and midwifery, and returned to become one of India’s first gynaecologists (there’s a hospital in Mumbai named after her).

The Endowment has continued playing the role of benefactor in the time since. Every year around a hundred ‘JN Tata scholars’ — among the brightest in their field of study — proceed to some of the world’s best educational institutions to pursue higher education in a diverse range of subjects.

The sterling list of these scholars includes Ardeshir Dalal, a member of the British viceroy’s executive council, former Indian President KR Narayanan, nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna, astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, and the architect Rahul Mehrotra.

Between 1892 and 2021, scholarships have been awarded to over 5,500 individuals in over 200 fields, covering more than 800 subjects and branches of specialisation. The Endowment’s eligibility norms ensure that only candidates of exceptional merit pass through the gates.

What advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the Founder of the Tata group

“It is a purely merit-based scholarship,” says Ashlesha Lotankar, who is part of the team that manages JNTE. “We receive about 1,600 applications a year from students across India for about 100 scholarships.”

Screenings, interviews...

The process from inviting of applications to final disbursement of funding happens in a seven-month cycle between December and July. Along with academic performance, the course and the institute the applicants have been selected to are considered during the two screenings that candidates have to come through. Then there is a ‘technical round’ of interviews by subject matter experts.

The subject experts are chosen from amongst the best education institutions in the country (such as IITs, NITs, IISERs, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, universities in India), professionals, and even overseas institutions. “The Endowment has initiated the practice of inviting former JN Tata scholars as subject experts. Great care is taken to ensure a near-perfect match between candidates’ profiles and subject experts’ areas of specialisation,” says Ms Lotankar.

“The experts test candidates for proficiency in their chosen subject and, besides, we also evaluate the applicant’s sense of purpose and his or her consistency with the principles that the Endowment stands for,” adds Ms Lotankar.

A JNTE bursary, which can go up to 1 million, is extended as a loan that beneficiaries have to repay over a period of time. “Jamsetji Tata believed this would instil valuable lessons in self-reliance,” explains Ms Lotankar. “The idea is to make the students feel a sense of responsibility towards their own education and to ensure a degree of accountability.”

"The repayment of every loan helps ensure that another deserving candidate is able to study abroad. Repayments are near 100%, with many of the students settling their loans much ahead of the prescribed period," says JNTE's Sandhya Jadhav.

Newer fields in the picture

The scholarships cover a spectrum of disciplines, among them newer and little-known science and engineering streams. In recent times, JNTE has seen an increase in the number of students opting for newer fields of study, among them machine learning, artificial intelligence, environment engineering, biomedical devices design and even river-basin management, creative writing and dance therapy.

There is something about being a JN Tata scholar and beneficiaries take pride in it. The scholarship opens a world of opportunities that goes beyond immediate academic support. Importantly, it gives these scholars access to a network comprising achievers from various walks of life. "We have a dedicated alumni platform where we share the success stories of our scholars and enable interactions between members," says Ms Lotankar.

JNTE keeps its community connected through a dedicated alumni website for Global Association of JN Tata Scholars as well as a newsletter called JNTE FAB for alumni members. "Besides achievements and success stories, we share information about the new developments here as well as relevant information across Tata group companies to keep our scholars updated," says JNTE's Swapnali Rane.

The Endowment's biggest achievement has been its success in helping young Indians achieve their dreams and contribute to the larger good of the society. Many of them would probably echo what Mr Mudliar says: "I express my deepest gratitude to JNTE and I hope it continues to have an impact on many more aspirational students."

Report card

The JN Tata Endowment has been helping young and talented Indian students pursue their dreams of attending institutes of international repute. Here are two recent examples of JNTE scholars who have excelled in their chosen fields.

AMIN ALI MODY

Amin Ali Modi

Bengaluru, Karnataka

Year of Award: 2018

Subject matter: Master’s in aerospace, aeronautical and space engineering from the University of Colorado, USA

Amin Ali Mody was selected to be part of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) Crew 213, where research teams spent weeks in a simulated Mars habitat conducting studies. Crew 213 conducted research on medical scenarios in space and on Mars. The activities at MDRS included lectures from NASA flight surgeons and others, extravehicular activities, search and rescue, emergency scenarios, etc. The team also developed and launched a medical supplies delivery rocket, for which Mr Mody worked on structures and propulsion.

TEJAS CHHEDA

Tejas Chheda

Mumbai, Maharashtra

Year of Award: 2020

Subject matter: Master’s in computer science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA

Tejas Chheda started working as a graduate student researcher at the information extraction and synthesis laboratory at his university under Andrew McCallum, a renowned professor in the domain. The lab focuses on applied ‘neuro-linguistic programming’, a new approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapy. Mr Chheda, who is hoping to publish a paper on his research findings, is currently working on machine learning in an internship with PayPal, the American online payments company.