Kanak Gupta was in grade 10 when she received an opportunity to intern at an animal feeds company in Nigeria. In many ways, it would be an experience that would shape her life and goals. As part of her internship, she visited Chikkuri, a village that had no access to electricity and was shocked by what she saw. "This sombre experience with energy poverty inspired me and two others to initiate a sustainable village electrification project," says Kanak, a UAE-based student.

After speaking to villagers in detail and researching affordable products that could be used for electrification, she and her team negotiated with suppliers, presented her ideas to the company’s management team to secure funding, and within a few months set up solar and wind-powered generators bringing power to the village of 100 households. Apart from the villagers, the governor of Kaduna state in Nigeria appreciated their work and applauded them for their project.

Thrilled with the taste of success, Kanak decided to work on more such projects that would help make a difference in the lives of people. "I designed a biogas digester from locally sourced materials to help villagers cook in a safer manner," she says. Yet another project she worked on was for a fish pond aerator to help local farmers in Nigeria.

Kanak designed a biogas digester using low-cost, locally sourced bottles, tubes and tires. The purposely simple design enabled her team to teach the villagers how to build the digesters themselves

With such creditable successes, it was little surprise when Kanak, a Hale student, was accepted into Princeton University for an undergraduate programme in engineering. That’s not all. She also received acceptance letters from three other Ivy League Schools.

"It feels surreal to be accepted to Princeton," says the 17-year-old. "I love being part of the Princeton community and getting to meet people with remarkable accomplishments and very different backgrounds and interests from my own."

Initially, though, Princeton was not Kanak’s dream university. "Personally, I didn’t love my Princeton tour because I wasn’t able to see a lot of the facilities and I couldn’t quite gauge the university’s ‘vibe’ as there weren’t many students on campus during summertime. In fact, I considered not applying to Princeton after my tour." However, later on, after further researching the university and learning more about everything that it has to offer, she was "excited to apply there".

What changed her mind?

"I chose Princeton over the other schools that I had been accepted to because of its undergraduate focus, its ample research opportunities, and its certificates programme. At Princeton, you can pursue as many certificates (minors) as you want. I plan to take advantage of this to explore new interests and deepen my knowledge of fields (like sustainable energy and entrepreneurship) that I am already passionate about."

Kanak with her acceptance letter

Kanak is also all praise for Hale Education and the help the counsellors offered her. "Hale Education was incredibly helpful during my journey," she says. "Initially, I didn’t know a lot about the American university application process but the counsellors at Hale guided me through it perfectly. They helped me reflect deeply on my experiences and translate this reflection into insightful and meaningful writing. That helped me a great deal."

Projects in Nigeria

How did Kanak zero in on the projects that she set up in Nigeria? "One of the principles of entrepreneurship is identifying a specific problem and then designing a solution that addresses it," she says. "Following this principle, for me the first step in project ideation is identifying and thoroughly understanding a problem by conducting interviews with people who are facing the challenge. After this, I brainstorm potential solutions before selecting one of these solutions based on cost and effectiveness considerations."

Those pointers were clearly visible in her projects: For instance, in her second project, she aimed to provide villagers with a greener, safer alternative to the hazardous cooking practice of burning wood in enclosed huts. "For this, I designed biogas digesters for the community. After several failed attempts, I created a prototype using low-cost, locally sourced bottles, tubes and tires. The purposely simple design enabled me and my teammates to teach the villagers how to build the digesters themselves."

Kanak’s solar-powered fishpond aerators helped increase fish farmers’ yield and make them more financially independent

Her third project involved the implementation of solar-powered fishpond aerators to increase fish farmers’ yield and make them more financially independent. "For this project, I collected FCR (feed conversion ratio), DOC (dissolved oxygen content), and ADWG (average daily weight gain) data, under JCU Australia’s professor Tan’s guidance, to analyze the aerators’ effectiveness in improving fish growth."

Kanak does more than just develop such projects. Dabbling in several interesting hobbies, including food plating and ballet, she says time management is key to balancing academics and hobbies. "I always prioritise my commitments and try to include some free time in my schedule."

How students can get started on a project

Keen to pursue projects but don’t know how to get started? Kanak offers some tips:

• The first step to getting started is identifying your areas of interest, be it sustainability or something else.

• After this, try to get involved in a project in that field prior to starting your own. For this, apply for internships or reach out to professors at different universities and express interest in getting involved in their projects in some way. Persistence is key in this stage as few companies are keen to work with high schoolers.

• Once you have gained some hands-on project work experience, identify problems and devise solutions to them. Taking an entrepreneurship course and collaborating with others on your project can be helpful.

Anand Raj OK

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