By Evana Ho
Utsav Gupta was heading down the path he’d set for himself since high school. The Delhi native was working in a conglomerate in India as an associate IT consultant, having studied engineering in university.
“In high school I was good in science and maths, so the most relevant choice was engineering,” Utsav explains. “It’s always the case with a lot of people in India; they end up choosing engineering because it’s considered a safer choice that provides you with a job.”
In that post-graduation job, he was spending his time coding, gauging his clients’ requirements, testing codes. It was a decent job. He was settled. But it didn’t really make him happy.
“I realised I wanted to work somewhere more with people,” he says. “So my direct obvious choice was to move into Human Resources.”
Even before he transitioned into HR management, Utsav was reading and learning more about social sciences in his own time.
“I would go and read papers, and watch relevant videos,” he recalls. “I ended up doing some online courses in sociology, just to learn more about that world and how you look at the world through the lens of a social scientist.”
“The more I learnt about it, the more I realised, that this is something that is much more relatable to how I feel and what I would like to do. I started looking for places where social sciences and Anthropology were appreciated, where there's a significant amount of research work happening, where there's a diversity of research areas which are being explored,” he says.
According to Utsav, Anthropology at ANU was then 7th in the world. Currently it’s equal 4th in the world, according to the 2020 QS World University Rankings. Utsav is effusive about the ANU, “it was an automatic choice” and “something of a dream university” he had always been drawn to.
“I was also fascinated by Australia; I had never visited this country before, so I guess it all worked out!”
So it was that Utsav came to study a Master of Anthropology at the Australian National University, fulfilling his ambition to earn a postgraduate degree in social sciences from one of the best universities in the world. As for how he settled on studying anthropology specifically, that had to do with the influential cultural anthropologists Margaret Mead and Wade Davis, whose work Utsav loves – as well as the approach anthropology takes in understanding people and societies.
Anthropologists, Utsav says, take a holistic view of the sets of people they aim to study.
“They look at all the various factors that impact or that influence the behaviour of a certain group of individuals involved,” he says.
“The other thing I also liked was the aspect of participant observation, which distinguishes anthropological research from all other disciplines. They collect data in that way and form an ethnography based off it. That really struck out to me, being in an environment to learn the various forces affecting a group of individuals or an individual or a society is something – which I feel is very true in its nature.”
Utsav’s family were surprised at his change of course in life; leaving a career he was going well in to pursue further study – and in another country no less.
“They were also quite surprised with the choice of my study,” he says. “Initially they considered anthropology quite a niche field, even though it is applicable everywhere.”
“In the end I have to say that I have to be very thankful to my parents who were quite appreciative and very supporting.”
When Utsav arrived in Canberra in July 2018, temperatures were sub-zero at night – something he hadn’t anticipated. The natural beauty of Canberra soon won him over, however.
“When I started actually visiting the campus, I realised the beauty of the city and I just fell in love with it,” Utsav says. “I mean it's not often that you have a mountain, a lake and so much greenery on the campus where you’re studying.”
“Coming from a place like Delhi and having lived in cities with a very high population and a very dense population, it has been a very welcome and nice change.”
The culture of openness and diversity are things Utsav has also appreciated.
“Australia, I have found to be one of the most progressive places in terms of thinking, people are really open to new ideas and are willing to talk about it, despite the challenges that this country has, similar to everywhere else,” he says. “I really feel that the people are very nice and very friendly.”
For his first two years in Canberra, Utsav studied, worked, and lived on campus. He just recently moved out of University House – a living experience he described as having been interesting and intellectually stimulating.
“It's primarily occupied by researchers and PhD students, so it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about how research happens at a prestigious university like ANU,” he says. “I also got the chance to interact with so many different people, with their ideas about their theses and different activities that they engage in.”
Small class sizes have meant that Utsav has had the opportunity to engage in stimulating discussions in class too. It’s been a well-rounded education: he says his studies have equipped him with important skills like writing, deep analysis, and critical thinking.
“I think it's extremely important for any person to survive and thrive in today's world that they have well developed analytical skills,” Utsav says. “And it’s something all the academics and teaching staff really promote.”
“Being in Social Sciences I've also learnt to write a lot. Writing essays changes the way you think, how you analyse and interpret texts and how you want to express your thoughts.”
Utsav is now “approximately 60%” of the way through his Master of Anthropology. While he was initially studying full time, he switched to part-time when his other on-campus commitments began to ramp up. He was working at ANU Careers, was an ANU Council member until August this year, and is currently the ANU Postgraduate and Research Students’ Association (PARSA) President – the student body representing all the postgraduate students at ANU. He started out as a college officer, then was Vice President.
He says that his roles in PARSA have given him the opportunity to contribute; perhaps even to give back, having felt supported by PARSA when he first came to ANU “without much knowledge, and without many friends”.
“PARSA and its activities especially through orientation week really helped me in being involved in the university and meeting new people and understanding what happens where,” he says. “That really motivated me to be more involved: I wanted to understand and be part of the culture at ANU.”
Apart from PARSA, Utsav is a member of the ANU mountaineering club, the Indian Students Association, and plays with the ANU badminton club.
He agrees that all these activities make his schedule pretty jam-packed. But, he says they “help in keeping the fire alive in all the other areas as well. I feel that I have a holistic and full-on life.”
As he nears the completion of his Master of Anthropology, Utsav starting to focus on a particular stream. International human development is appealing to him; he’d like to work on alleviating inequality.
“However I also feel that the world is moving too fast for people to really understand how it’s moving, with digitisation and the way that industries are moving forward,” he says. “I think it's making it quite hard for people to understand themselves, and their identities and how they want to approach different things in life.”
He’s interested in how people are responding to the challenge of working in this new age, and how this impacts people from developed countries differently from less prosperous countries.
“I am very keen to bridge the gap between a very technical perspective on digitisation on the human perspectives and what our human needs are in general,” Utsav says.