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More than one in six Harvard College freshmen in the recently-admitted Class of 2022 are first-generation students – that is, they (and possibly their siblings) are the first in their families to attend an institution of higher education. Later this month, meanwhile, The Mittal Institute and the HBS Club of the GCC will welcome dozens of college students from all over the developing world to Dubai for the second annual Crossroads Emerging Leaders Program – they, too, are all first-generation students. Universities can be daunting environments for anyone, perhaps more so for students who have no family experience to draw upon.

The Mittal Institute’s new Arvind Raghunathan and Sribala Subramanian South Asia Visiting Fellow for 2018/19, Roluahpuia, understands this well. A native of Manipur in northeast India, he was also the first in his family to attend university and admits there were challenges convincing his parents that an academic career is a worthwhile option for an exceptionally bright young man, rather than earning a good living straight away. 

“In a sense, I was disobedient,” he says. “I wouldn’t say my family was unsupportive but the reality is that it takes many years to complete a PhD and there is financial pressure. But this was my passion and I needed to take this bold decision.”

Roluahpuia in his new office at The Mittal Institute

Roluahpuia achieved a PhD last year from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in India. He is interested in identity, nationalism, development and borderland studies. His PhD thesis is an in-depth ethnographic account of the Mizo national movement in northeast India. Now, having worked as an assistant professor for a year at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, he is the latest Indian scholar to be awarded the Arvind Raghunathan and Sribala Subramanian Fellowship by The Mittal Institute and will spend a year at Harvard. The fellowship supports recent, South Asia-focused PhDs in the humanities and social sciences.

Roluahpuia is from a tribal background. In India, indigenous tribes account for around a tenth of the total population – more than 100 million people – and they are largely at an economic and social disadvantage. Around one third of the population of Roluahpuia’s home state Manipur is tribal, according to the 2011 census. But tribal issues, he says, are at the fringes of academia in India. “My interest is in tribes, although there’s no such thing as ‘tribal studies’,” he says. I think about questions of identity, of development and of nationalism, and also of territory and conflict.”

“In India, the academic focus on tribes has been relatively scant,” he continues. “There may be plenty of historical and anthropological works but we are still rather uninformed about contemporary tribal politics.”

Having just arrived on campus – and in the US for the first time – he makes it clear that it is too early to forecast the rest of his year at Harvard. He will keep an open mind and allow himself the space to benefit from the many opportunities that will come his way.

“It’s a big leap for me, personally and professionally, and the fellowship was unexpected”, he says. “But in the first few days here, I have already felt the exciting academic and intellectual atmosphere.

“The issues that I touch upon in my own work are very much global in nature. There is a lot to learn from other parts of the world. I can listen, share my ideas and fully participate in the academic exchange.”