Interview With a Mentor: Pinky Kain

Pinky Kain, one of our mentors, is a Neurobiologist working in India. She was born and raised in Delhi where she completed her education up until the end of her university degree.

Pinky originally wanted to be a doctor but after her failure in grabbing the medical seat, she decided to remain in Biology. She started her journey as a biologist by finishing a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Microbiology and later a Ph.D. in Neurobiology research from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS-TIFR) Bangalore, India. Later she moved to Germany and the United States of America for higher degrees.  She returned to India a few years ago to continue her research in her own lab. She also worked as a Visiting Scientist (2018-2019) at Buck Institute of Aging, Novato, CA. It was here that she first heard about FEA from her colleague and decided to get involved.

We caught up with her to ask her a few questions about herself and her experiences as a mentor with the Freedom Employability Academy.

Why did you decide to be a mentor?

I enjoy mentoring in general. I never had a mentor, but I wish that I had.  While I was still in school, I started tutoring children from grade 9 and tutored kids that were one year younger than me; like in 12th grade, I taught 11th graders. Mentoring is not something that is new to me.

The reason why I started with FEA is that I liked the idea of long-distance mentoring and reaching people who are otherwise not able to reach us. FEA is very unique with its approach, using very educated people to help kids that are not very sophisticated. These kids would normally never be able to reach them.

It’s partly for myself as well. If we were in a lab, it would be easy to teach them what I do, but outside of the lab, it’s more of a challenge. It is going out of the way to do something that I have never done. I wanted to see what I can do.

What do you enjoy most about being a mentor?

I feel each class is a memorable moment. The more you speak to these kids and their experiences, the more you receive in return. I feel very encouraged after every new mentoring session.

They are so courageous and often go out of their way to get what they can from the class. Each class is different and gives a different flavor of experiences.

Also: I’m a scientist, I think like a scientist all the time. We read about other general things in newspapers or on the net but don’t necessarily know very much about it. To understand the ground realities and challenges that these students are facing, I have to do a lot of homework when talking to these kids, so I’ve learned a lot of new things.

What have you learned from your students?

Fulfilling someone’s expectations is a big challenge. It’s very easy for these students to feel discouraged, fail and feel inferior in the crowd due to the repercussions of their not so well off backgrounds, other barriers, and financial situations. Our backgrounds are usually very different from our students. We can give suggestions but if we are in their shoes, it is a very different situation and our suggestions might not be the best. Whatever suggestions we give to them as mentors have to be carefully considered.

I have always told them to keep trying and have an alternative plan, and have that plan before you get started, e.g. I wanted to be a doctor but I couldn’t and I had a plan b. Prepare for failure, plan the next step, do it in a positive way. Failure is not because of you personally. Everyone can fail. Failure is a step to success. Think of a spider. How many times it falls to finally make the final web. If you never try, you will never succeed.

They look up to us because they think we have the ultimate solution. But they don’t see how often we have failed. Even for us it was not easy, no matter where we come from. They give up very easily because they receive very little encouragement from home. Their parents start asking them to work before they can learn something. Go against the wind and achieve what you dream for.

Who is/was your most inspiring student and why?

In my first class, there was a courageous mother of two kids. She was a housewife while running a small boutique/clothes shop.

She said that after learning English at FEA her confidence grew and that she is now able to do her business in a much better way because she is much more confident and flexible in communicating with the customers. I was really touched. Seeing the transformation, seeing the impact.

There is a class of people where it is very hard for women to come out of their houses and become visible in public areas. They are kept inside cooking and caring for kids.

That was the situation of the woman with the shop. She started her shop from home. By learning English she managed to grow. We still keep in touch.

What have you implemented as a mentor that has worked well?

I told the facilitator to circulate my phone number and email ID among the students. Most of the time I try to do things that are for everyone. But in special cases, anybody can approach me otherwise too. I also announce it during my classes.

On the first call, I ask them to send me their names and their career plans. Out of a class of 20 people, most of them write to me but only 6 or seven would reach out to me over the phone to discuss further their career plans and other related issues.

Roughly 80% would reach out if I give them a task. E.g. Can you write ten lines about this topic? I like to give them tasks that also help to increase their general knowledge. Then in the next class, I can give them input about their English. I also encourage them for group discussion and 2 minute extempore on current topics in some of my classes to remove their hesitation. It’s difficult to keep the same level of excitement every time in the class if we are not doing something exciting and interesting.

I tell them that if this one class is not enough, reach out to me. Many do reach out to me, on email or on WhatsApp. I have created a separate folder in Gmail to keep all the conversations with FEA students. If they reach out to me on WhatsApp I can call them back because they might not be able to afford the call. I often tell them to watch english movies, read english newspapers, novels and storybooks. Teach english at home to younger ones. Go for outing and get socialize with other FEA mates and discuss your failures and achievements. The agenda is to do their homework properly, face the hardships and enjoy the success.

What would you like to see from FEA in the future?

Some kids are interested in a particular subject or career; if any mentors have expertise in that particular area, they should be connected with that kid so they can get better help.

Many of these kids want to go into teaching, school, and college, we should find mentors that are teachers that can help them better. Even just one class with them will work so that they have more answers from experts in the areas that interest them.

A second thing is that I would like the opportunity to sponsor a kid because I can see how difficult this is for them to pay for courses or for their dreams. If I see a particular potential, I should be able to support this kid. But there isn’t currently a platform that allows me to do that.

One other thing: Students should be encouraged to meet up a few months after completing FEA to share their experiences and information that they’ve learned. I don’t know what happens after they are done with their FEA classes.

When I was done with my PhD I stayed in touch with my group. The more you stay in touch the better choices you find for furthering your learning from what your former colleagues share. FEA could help by creating an event for them to do this, like a reunion.

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