“The traditional idea of an ‘entrepreneur’ no longer exists and everyone should think of themselves as entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial spirit is the idea of being open to change, being innovative, and taking risks. Every student, teacher, parent and policy maker is an entrepreneur.” – Nikila Kakarla, USA

Being part of the Student Voice Live! conference in April was a highlight of my year so far — proof positive that the leaders of tomorrow understand the challenges facing education, and are more than prepared to meet them head-on. One of those future leaders, Nikila Kakarla, was not only instrumental in organizing the event, she’s also taking her rightful place at the table to discuss what must change in education.

Kakarla, a sophomore at Barnard College, Columbia University majoring in Economics, is an Athena Leadership Scholar, a Resident Assistant and is treasurer of the Columbia Student Global AIDS Campaign.  She also serves on the Athena Center for Leadership Studies Student Advisory Board.  Kakarla has interned at the U.S. Department of Education, the Local Initiative Support Corporation, and Obama for America, and she currently works for the Campaign of Reshma Saujani (founder of Girls Who Code) for NYC Public Advocate. She’s a 2012 Young People Fellow at the People for the American Way Foundation and has spoken at the 2010 Global Education Conference and at the Exploring the State of Now Conference in 2011. But while her accomplishments are many, her goals are very straightforward: to give young people a voice in education.

According to Kakarla, “Students are often left out of conversations about their own education, but they are the ones that need to be heard the most in conjunction with all the other stakeholders in education.” This gap is what has driven Kakarla’s efforts since she was still in high school; and it drives her now. In today’s Daily Edventure, Nikila Kakarla talks about the role great teachers and mentors have played in her development, and about the power of social media, specifically Twitter, to galvanize commitment and action. Enjoy!

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

As a high school student, I developed an interest in global education particularly working with a school in India, Pardada Pardadi. Learning about this school and realizing the differences between my own education and the education available in developing countries shocked me.  One main difference I saw was their lack of technology.  Their access to computers was non-existent at the time, so I really wanted to change that.  Whereas years ago, you needed books and supplies to get an education, now one computer can really change a classroom.  As the daughter of immigrants, I know my parents wouldn’t be able to afford me the life I have now if they hadn’t been able to travel to the US and study in US universities.  Education changed our lives and everyone should have the opportunity to uplift themselves. What they do with that opportunity is up to them.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

It is hard to pick just one teacher because so many teachers contributed to my success.  However, Mr. Kevin Merges, a math teacher at Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey, was particularly important to my growth in high school.  He was one teacher who saw something in me and gave me a chance to explore my interests.  I remember always thinking really big about ways to change the world and when everyone thought it was a crazy idea, Mr. Merges always said it was not only possible, but that I would succeed.  When I was approaching my senior year in high school, I really wanted to be able to study global education and use technology to guide my work.  I titled the course, “Using Web 2.0 to Aid Schools in Developing Nations.”  With Mr. Merges as my teacher, I started to read books by Mohammed Yunus, Jacqueline Novogratz, and others.  I watched TED talks and blogged about my findings.  During the course, he once sent me a link for an e-conference: Global Education Conference 2010.  He told me to send a proposal to speak and I thought to myself, I have nothing to speak about and who would want to listen?  Despite my hesitation, I sent in a proposal and to my complete shock, I was accepted as one of only five young people chosen worldwide.   Mr. Merges always believes I can do the impossible and helps me bring my ideas to life.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

This year I worked on a conference, Student Voice Live, that took place on April 13th in NYC.  This conference was part of a larger movement of students that want to have a voice in their education.  The mission of the project is to give students the tools to exercise their voice, while positioning them to be the champions of bridging the partisan gap in education. The students are bringing together all parties from community leaders, educators, politicians, parents, media, etc. to help instill the belief in all that students can and should have not only a voice, but a seat at the table. I believe students are critical to advancing education.  In my mind this conference showed everyone the power of young people.  The fact that we could put on a conference of this magnitude surprised people and now we are in a position to make sure we implement the student voice in every community.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Twitter is the reason this movement started.  All of the students and supporters involved met on #stuvoice Twitter chat.  Everyone came together in the belief that student voices are vital to the conversation.  We planned a conference in seven months entirely online.  With students from all across the country, we used SkyDrive and Skype to communicate with each other and most of us met (in-person) for the very first time at the conference.  Technology played a large part in Student Voice Live.  With Dell as our major sponsor, we were able to have access to technology to reach the entire world.  With the use of live streaming, we had satellite summits in over 20 locations on six continents.  We couldn’t have put on Student Voice Live without technology and we can’t continue the movement without it either.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

Twitter is one of the most innovative tools in education today.  Teachers, parents, and policy makers use it to communicate, and swap ideas.  In the classroom with some teachers using Twitter to engage students and increase dialogue, the possibilities to use Twitter are endless.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

Entrepreneurship is a skill that everyone needs.  The traditional idea of an “entrepreneur” no longer exists and everyone should think of themselves as entrepreneurs.  The entrepreneurial spirit is the idea of being open to change, being innovative, and taking risks.  Every student, teacher, parent and policy maker is an entrepreneur.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would give Twitter to every child in the world because the possibilities are endless.  Social media is the great equalizer and when people have access to it, lives can change.  Every person has a story to share and Twitter is a great vehicle to do so.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?
Having gone to an independent school in New Jersey, I did not experience the public school system.  The school I did attend was a great school for many reasons.  We had small class sizes, close relationships with teachers, and our voices could be heard.  In my case, I had the luck of meeting many teachers that believed in me enough to support my ideas and help me achieve my goals.  A kid just needs one person to tell them that someone believes in them, in my case, I had teachers tell me all the time.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

From my research of education in college, I see one major gap in our education specifically in the United States.  We need to prepare students for 21st century jobs specifically in STEM fields.  Every technology company has a vested interest in STEM education and should be investing in education.  This means not only traditional STEM education, but also digitizing our classrooms and having technology available that students will encounter when they leave the classroom.

About Nikila Kakarla

  • Birthplace: Somerset, New Jersey
  • Current residence: New York, New York
  • Education: 2nd year in undergrad
  • Website I check every day: http://www.capitalnewyork.com/ (I’m a NYC politics junkie), twitter.com
  • Person who inspires me most: Reshma Saujani, my mentor, founder of Girls Who Code and Candidate for NYC Public Advocate.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Going to Costco every Saturday morning with my Dad.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Mountain View, California
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? At my friend’s snapchat.
  • Favorite book: The Athena Doctrine by John Gerzema
  • Favorite music: Anything by Beyonce
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  Find someone that inspires you and then make them your mentor.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”- Barack Obama
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