(Last Updated on : 29/10/2010)
Educational life of Kalpana Chawla took on a serious note, when she entered DAV College for Women for her Pre-University. Nothing mattered to her more than her full pursuance of studies for further betterment. Her early young years had immensely helped Kalpana to look beyond the universe and fly far. Teachers at the DAV College encouraged her interest in science and mathematics and urged her to go for higher studies. There was a prophetic incident during a mathematics class. The teacher, Swarn Arora, was teaching what is called a `Null set` or empty set in modern algebra. Giving the example of this set, she said that an Indian woman astronaut was the classic case as till then no Indian woman had become an astronaut. To the surprise of everybody, Kalpana instantly exclaimed, `Who knows, Madam, one day this set may not exist?`
After successfully completing Pre-University, Kalpana realised that she would have to shift to the neighbouring co-educational Dyal Singh College, if she wanted to pursue her dream of an engineering career. Nobody had told her earlier that it was the only college in Karnal that offered the Pre-Engineering course required for admission to an engineering college. Fortunately, it was not too late. She joined Dyal Singh College for the Pre-Engineering course, passed it with excellence and secured admission in the Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh
It was after Kalpana had secured admission to the Punjab Engineering College that her father, whose business often kept him out of Karnal, became aware of her plans and tried his best to dissuade her. He felt, a girl had no career prospects in engineering and advised her to become a doctor or a schoolteacher. He was not against her going to Chandigarh because earlier, Sunita had done her higher studies there; but Kalpana was adamant. She was determined to become a flight engineer and for that, an engineering degree was essential. Kalpana Chawla`s educational life in India and her determination to pursue a sole dream very much mirrors her later zealous effort to become the first Indian woman space traveller from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
Although her father was conservative by temperament, he always gave in when he realised that Kalpana had made up her mind. Moreover, her mother and eldest sister always firmly supported her. That Kalpana had already secured admission in the engineering college was a strong argument in her favour. So, after much discussion in the family, her father finally gave in. However, he was too busy to accompany her to Chandigarh
, and give her moral support. Her mother accompanied Kalpana to Chandigarh instead. Her father`s objections were not unreasonable - a girl aiming for an engineering career was a rarity in those days.
Then to top it all, Kalpana opted for the aeronautical engineering course. Of the even girls who joined that year, she was the only one to do so. Asked during her admission that was her second option, she had replied that she had none. During counselling for the election of various engineering courses, the teachers also tried to dissuade her from opting for aeronautic engineering as it had limited job opportunities in the country. They tried to shift her to electrical engineering which other girls had joined, but she refused to budge. Nobody could change her mind. She was determined to become a flight engineer.
Kalpana Chawla`s educational life took a significant turn, when she began her phase studying aeronautics. In college, Kalpana showed total dedication to her subject because she enjoyed what she was doing. In fact, she was always dissatisfied with her performance and felt she could have done better. Always dressed in trousers, she used to come to college on a bicycle. As there was no girl`s hostel, initially she stayed in Mata Gujri Hall in the Punjab University campus. In fact, she changed several hostels as she found the hostel environment very noisy and distracting for studies. Later, she lived alone in one room above a garage in a bungalow.
Kalpana had a few selected friends and would restrict herself to them and her studies. She learnt karate and became a black belt. She was mentally prepared to fight if any man tried to act smart with her. She also had an aesthetic sense in clothes, was fond of eating simple food and collecting precious stones. She loved a quiet environment and reading books. During those days, her favourite writers were Ayn Rand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Salman Rushdie, Richard Bach and Oriana Fallaci. She would even persuade other friends to read these writers. Besides helping her friends in studies, she regularly paid the fees of one poor batch-mate out of her pocket money without the girl`s knowledge. Although she believed herself to be no less than any boy and could do any task that they could, she disliked the more aggressive women`s liberation movement of the West.
Deep into her educational life, Kalpana Chawla always kept herself informed of developments in the world of aviation. She collected books and magazines on the subject and read them from cover to cover. She was particularly fond of Kelly Johnson`s book on designing high-tech aeroplanes under a cloak of secrecy in the United States. Throughout her aeronautical studies at the sprawling campus of the college, she took an active part in various extra-curricular activities, which eventually helped in her selection to an American university. In the first year she wrote for the college magazine `PECMAG` on precious stones and in the subsequent years she was its student editor. In the same year at the Annual Colloquium, she surprised her seniors by presenting a paper on `Time-lapse in Space` dealing with Albert Einstein`s Theories of Relativity.
Kalpana also became the Joint Secretary of the Aero and Astro Club of the college. Under its auspices, she arranged several lectures and seminars on issues, such as, the role of women in society, the political scenario in the subcontinent, etc. She also conducted several quiz competitions. Once she arranged for the showing of the film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (illustrious British comedy, from 1965) to her classmates when she came to know that they had not seen it. She was one of the few students who were interested in aero-modelling and regularly visited parks near the college to fly aero-models with her classmate R K Jolly. She also took part in college sports meets, participating in running, cycling and rope-skipping races.
Always forthright in her manners and ready to take a stand on important issues, Kalpana won the respect of her classmates. Kalpana Chawla`s educational life was such a platform, even where she left her mark in every domain. The truth is, being an Indian woman from the mid 20th century era, she defied every customary norm, going on to rewrite history in history pages. If ever the question of a future career were discussed she would always point to the sky and say, `I`m going to fly!` Sometimes, friends teased her for her passion for flying. Kalpana was respectful and courteous to all her teachers and was always keen to learn any new thing from anybody, be it a clerical job or handling sophisticated equipment. She had a special regard for two professors in the Aeronautical Engineering Division, namely V S Malhotra and S C Sharma, who always encouraged and supported her. Her teachers found that while most of the students were only keen on good grades and securing a degree, she always enjoyed understanding things and working on new projects.
In 1982, Kalpana secured the third position in her class when she passed the B.Sc. (Engineering) degree. By virtue of being the only woman candidate, she also became the first woman aeronautical engineer of the college. Despite all the hurdles in her path, she had managed to stick to her first love and was then fully qualified to design aeroplanes. This was, however, just the first step to much greater heights that Kalpana Chawla would achieve in the years ahead of her educational life, most importantly in United States.
While Kalpana was in her final year at the engineering college, she began preparations to join an American university for higher studies. After graduation she had got job offers from some organisations, such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bangalore
. But she opted for a teaching assignment at the Punjab Engineering College only because she felt it could be used as a stop-gap arrangement before she secured admission in the United States. Kalpana was keen to study more and broaden her educational life about her subject before taking up a job.
Meanwhile, her father`s new enterprise in tyre manufacturing was flourishing and the tyres were being exported abroad. He was often away from Karnal and was keen that his children should take care of the business in his absence. Her elder brother Sanjay had already joined him and Kalpana feared that one day she would also be coaxed into joining it. She therefore did not return to Karnal even for a short break after completing her B.Sc. degree.
Soon, Kalpana was offered admission to some US universities, but the course she preferred was in the Department of Aerospace Science and Engineering in the University of Texas at Arlington. Moreover, the Department also offered her financial assistance which she needed badly. But the last date of joining the university was not very far away and her father was still abroad. Without his approval and assistance, she could not leave.
Fortunately, her father returned home just a few weeks before the last date of admission. When he came to know that she was teaching at Chandigarh
and had also secured admission to an American university, he was very upset. He went to Chandigarh planning to bring the recalcitrant girl back home. He first met the Principal of the college to find out her whereabouts. When the Principal came to know that he was Kalpana`s father, he took him to task for being too busy and ignoring her talent. Then the Principal convinced him that future opportunities in her specialised subject of aeronautics lay only in the United States.
As her father neared the room where Kalpana was taking a senior engineering class, he caught a glimpse of her through a side window. And his heart filled with pride, seeing his `little` daughter teaching engineering to senior boys. This precisely can be termed as a proud moment for a proud father, with a daughter like Kalpana Chawla coming to a full circle in her educational life. When Kalpana saw her father outside the classroom, she immediately came out to the corridor and told him angrily that she had missed a golden opportunity of studying abroad due to his delay in returning home. To her great surprise, he assured her that she would join the same year and in time if that was her wish! He even asked her to resign from her job immediately and return to Karnal to prepare for her journey. For a moment, Kalpana thought he was trying to trick her into returning home. But his subsequent actions convinced her of his genuine concern. In the next few days, he literally ran from pillar to post to get her passport issued, her ticket booked and visa sanctioned. He also booked his son`s ticket to the US so that he could escort her to the university and ensure that she was well settled there. Through his contacts in the US, the university even made a special arrangement to pick her up at the airport and admit her even when the last date was over.
Within a few hours of reaching the University of Texas at Arlington, Kalpana met her future husband, the six-footer, broad shouldered Jean Pierre Harrison, who lived a few rows away from her apartment. A Frenchman who had taken US citizenship, he was popularly known as `JP` and was a freelance flying instructor in the local flying club. Flying being her first love too, a friendship grew as she realised that they shared many interests like listening to music, reading and hiking. Within a year she felt she had met her life partner and despite initial protests by family members, she married Harrison at a simple ceremony on December 2, 1983. But she retained her maiden name - shortened to `KC` by friends who found it hard to pronounce her name. Later, Kalpana also became a citizen of the United States.
After doing her Master of Science from the University of Texas in 1984, Kalpana joined the University of Colorado, Boulder, to do a Ph.D. in aerospace under the guidance of Professor Don Wilson. The laboratory was her favourite haunt where she conducted several computer-modelling studies of various aircraft. Here, she was earning enough money for flying lessons at the local flying club. Earlier, in Karnal, she had wanted to join the local aviation club to become an amateur flyer like her brother but she needed the written permission of her father. Her father had flatly refused as he felt it was too risky for a young girl. Luckily in the US, she had no family restrictions to keep her passion for flying on leash. Moreover, she felt she should have experience of flying if she intended to design aeroplanes.
Harrison wholeheartedly supported her desire to fly. In fact, he himself began to give her flying lessons at the local flying club. Kalpana`s educational life had started to become even more enriched and knowledgeable, when her husband Jean Harrison is spoken of. They often flew together in gliders and aeroplanes and she secured various licences to become an instructor of flying single-and multiple-engine aeroplanes and even single-engine seaplanes. Her source of inspiration was several explorers and flyers, but the first to inspire her was J R D Tata
. During the two-week stint at the Aero Club of India, New Delhi, as a part of training of the Punjab Engineering College, she had seen the Puss Moth displayed there. Tata had flown this first commercial, single-seater plane from Karachi to Mumbai
on October 15, 1932. Patty Wagstaff, the three times American aerobatics champion, was another aviator she admired. She herself learnt aerobatics and would do the rolls and loops during joyrides with her friends. Laying aside these fun and frolic remembrances, Kalpana Chawla`s educational life was one of strict, serious, rigorous and disciplined student, who would leave no stones unturned to seek and possess her goal.
Be it in Punjab or United Sates, Kalpana made herself and her family proud with such humbleness in style and way of living. Her brilliance shone through her education, excelling in the bewitching subject of space science.