U of T grad ‘moves mountains’ to earn engineering degree

Vishakha Pujari says she is the first person from her rural village in India to attend a foreign university
Vishakha Pujari holds up her pinky finger with her engineering ring outside of convocation hall at the University of Toronto

Vishakha Pujari, who receives her bachelor’s degree in applied science on June 18, shows off the iron ring that’s often worn by engineering graduates (supplied image)

Vishakha Pujari is profoundly committed to paying it forward.

The first student at the University of Toronto to be supported by a Karta Catalyst Scholarship, Pujari arrived at U of T in 2019 from the small Indian village of Walandi – about a five-hour drive from Hyderabad – to study industrial engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

In addition to her schoolwork, she found time to host workshops for students from her high school and even donated some of her scholarship money back to the Karta Initiative – an organization dedicated to providing equitable access to higher education to India’s low-income rural youth.

“If I am getting something, I should make sure I am giving back,” Pujari says.

On June 18, Pujari is set to cross the stage in Convocation Hall – and then head back to her new job as a software design analyst in Montreal. While her parents are unable to attend due to the cost of flying to Toronto, they hope to watch the convocation livestream. Pujari, meanwhile, says she plans to meet up with her mentors at U of T and possibly have dinner with friends. 

Reflecting on her time at U of T, which included a one-year co-op, she recalls the initial culture shock of moving from Walandi to Toronto – a city that she had never visited before.

“It was the second time I was on a flight,” she says. “I’m from a village so we don’t see many tall buildings there. My residence had 28 floors, so it was all a new experience.”

Pujari grew up the youngest of three siblings on her family’s sugarcane and soybean farm. She learned the value of hard work from her parents, who woke up at 5 a.m. each day to tend to their land before going to neighbouring farms to earn extra money.

When she was 12, she attended a government-run school, located about 80 kilometres from Walandi, and spent nine months of the year living on the campus – a long period of separation from her parents.  

Pujari first learned about the Karta Initiative when she was 16 – and says the program’s emphasis on integrity, perseverance and community service resonated deeply.

She became a member after undergoing a rigorous selection process and, over the course of two years, received mentorship, academic support, and opportunities for personal development.  

Receiving her acceptance to U of T and the Karta Catalyst Scholarship was a life-changing moment – one that meant all her hard work and sacrifices paid off.

“It was really exciting and scary,” she says. “My parents were really happy because no one from our village has gone to study at a foreign university.”

Karta Scholars receive funding for tuition and living expenses, personal and professional development, internship placements, and career transition support. In addition to working with their academic advisers, scholars are also connected with a faculty mentor and participate in numerous enrichment activities with other scholarship students at U of T.

Although she was accustomed to living apart from her family, being in Toronto brought new challenges.

“The classes I was used to had no more than 40 students,” she says. “When I came here, I was like, ‘Oh my God, there are so many people.’ For a moment, I was like, ‘Am I an introvert?’”

She worried that her English-speaking skills weren’t up to par.

“It was exciting to meet students from different countries, but at the same time overwhelming,” she says.

At the same time, she was unable to travel back to India to see her parents and siblings for three years due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Pujari found guidance and reassurance in the form of mentors. In her first year, she met Joseph Wong, U of T’s vice-president, international, and a professor in the department of political science and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in the Faculty of Arts & Science, and the two kept in touch with throughout Pujari’s time at U of T.

They would discuss everything from challenges Pujari was facing to her future plans – which she says may include pursuing a master’s in business administration and starting her own business.

“Her resilience is so impressive,” Wong says, noting the many obstacles Pujari overcame to become a U of T student. “It’s pretty incredible what she’s done, and to hear now that she’s graduating and has a job lined up is really gratifying.”  

Pujari also received mentorship from Chirag Variawa, director, first-year curriculum and associate professor, teaching stream, in U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. He says her “unbridled curiosity, determination, and intelligence” is nothing short of inspirational.

“Over the years, I've seen her grow into a professional who moves mountains not just with the strength of her character, but the goodness of her heart as well – and that's exactly what the world needs,” he says.

Through it all, Pujari says her family has been among her biggest supporters.

“My father used to come with me to workshops in Mumbai, which is 12 hours away from our village,” she says. “My sister was also really supportive and helped me with my English.”  

“They’re really excited and happy I’m graduating.”


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