Helping youth discover self-identity through social purpose

  • Blog Post Date 14 October, 2019
  • Notes from the Field
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Jainetri Merchant

Society for Education, Action, Research and Community Health


Emerging adulthood’ refers to the transitory phase from adolescence to adulthood, when young adults are on an intense search for authenticity, awareness, personal definition, and exploration of worldviews, making it a crucial life stage for identity development. In this post, Jainetri Merchant talks about NIRMAN, an educational programme which aims to bridge the chasm between society’s problems and India’s youth who are in search for a purposeful and meaningful life.

Meet Vikram, an aspiring doctor, whose life plan was sorted - attend medical college at a stellar institution, survive the internship, crack the postgraduate entrance exam, complete his MD (Doctor of Medicine), and at last, the crowning moment of his career, specialise in cardiology. Being a natural topper, he got accepted into Maharashtra’s most prestigious engineering and medical schools and chose to follow his brother’s footsteps into medicine. He had come to terms with the reality that his social life would cease to exist during his rigorous journey, but the prospect of starting a sprawling private practice kept his dreams afire. Well into his second year of medical college, he was unsatisfied and found himself questioning his motivations to pursue medicine in the first place. He realised the absence of conscious reasoning and proactive choice in his decision to pursue medicine, as he did not consider any other career to be possible. He felt disheartened by the notion that the rest of his professional career would be spent in an airconditioned cabin. He wanted more. He just didn’t know what, why or how.

Vikram, like millions of youth in India, was on the cusp of what recent psychological research terms ‘emerging adulthood’. In this transitory phase from adolescence to adulthood, emerging adults are on an intense search for personal authenticity, awareness, personal definition, and exploration of worldviews, making it a crucial life stage for identity development. The struggle to seamlessly transition into adulthood is further hampered by the poor quality of education, lack of explorative opportunities, pressure to make the right career choices, and above all confusion among students.

Instilling purpose in youth

Amrut Bang, the programme lead of NIRMAN - an educational programme to foster youth for social change - finds that students pursuing professional degrees often lack purpose beyond individual career ambitions. He finds that classrooms largely deliver information to students, occasionally impart skills, but rarely help students to discover their purpose. These individuals end up lacking conviction in their abilities to apply their skills in the real world, an aspect of learning overlooked by most educational institutions. Within these confines, students often replicate others’ career trajectories and fail to introspect where, and more importantly why, they should apply their skills.

The presence of purpose is a key component to positive functioning and youth development according to psychologist Dr. Corey Keyes. His research finds that youth with a purposeful life are in a state of flourishing, an optimal state of well-being beyond material happiness. Rather than adopting a cautionary approach to youth development (safe sex, road safety, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and securing employment), there is a need to steer the conversation of their growth towards flourishing and finding purpose. Youth development should not simply involve imparting skills for employment, for example, teaching technical skills to meet the requirements of an industry. This approach often leads people to adopt institutional goals as their own and limits one’s ability to think for themselves. Instead, youth development should encourage individuals to think logically and cognitively and empower them to flourish by helping them attain their purpose, which ultimately fuels desire to use their skills. Purpose is the psychological vaccine for those languishing in a state of meaninglessness to achieve fulfilment.

The idea of NIRMAN

At its core, NIRMAN is an educational programme which aims to bridge the chasm between society’s problems which are waiting to be solved and India’s youth who are in search for a purposeful and meaningful life. It enables emerging adults to recognise and channel their potential towards social development, which needs young leaders. The idea of NIRMAN was conceived by Drs. Rani and Abhay Bang, founders of the Society of Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH) in Gadchiroli, to nurture and organise young changemakers to solve various societal challenges through a journey of self-discovery.

NIRMAN’s nurturing process consists of three eight-day residential workshops held once in every six months, consisting of nearly 60 participants from varying academic and experiential backgrounds. The workshops are held at Shodhgram, Gadchiroli, and are structured to foster personal exploration and growth for a higher goal, introduce pressing social challenges and lastly convey various possibilities for contributing to the social sector. Led by social changemakers, the workshops ultimately intend to cultivate one’s understanding of real-world problems, identify one’s life mission, and groom young leaders committed to work for the betterment of society. A NIRMANee’s journey extends well beyond the workshops with guidance from mentors, opportunities to practise in the social sector, connections to social organisations, and incubation support in the form of financial help. This lifelong community of like-minded people hopes to create a youth culture in pursuit of purpose and impact in society.

Since its inception in 2006, more than 1,230 participants have joined the NIRMAN community in nine batches, with backgrounds ranging from medicine, engineering, theoretical physics, chartered accountancy, fine arts, and agriculture. Approximately 110 national and international resource persons such as Dr. K. Srinath Reddy1, Professor Hitesh Bhatt2, Devaji Tofa3 and Dr. Richard Cash4 have been associated with NIRMAN, to further enrich student’s learning process. Nearly 350 NIRMAN alumni have targeted social challenges across India in association with 80 different social organisations.

Our friend Vikram (Dr. Vikram Sahane), joined NIRMAN in 2011 and found his prosocial purpose by working in the field of public health at the grassroots level, which led him to contribute to two important publications explaining the burden of stroke at the community level. Vikram along with two other doctors from NIRMAN were felicitated by the hands of then Health Minister of Maharashtra for their service in remote parts of the state. NIRMANee Pranjal Koranne pursued his prosocial purpose and explored his passion for education by working with 112 children in an ashram school (government residential school for children belonging to Scheduled Tribes) in Rangi, Maharashtra to improve their reading literacy. NIRMANee Dr. Aarti Gorwadkar discovered her passion for mental health by providing clinical care and de-addiction facilities in the tribal district of Gadchiroli. As the only psychiatrist in the district, she recently conducted the first community-based survey of mental health disorders among tribal people in India. Through NIRMAN, these young changemakers of India have found a purpose to utilise their talents for the betterment of the society.

Emerging adults are on a quest for self-discovery. Since they form the largest proportion of India’s population, they possess the potential to transform our country’s future. Hence, to facilitate youth to transition into socially motivated adults, educational programmes need to encourage them to lead a purposeful life. Organisations like NIRMAN offer youth the opportunity to realise their values, role models, and a social mission beyond the narrow confines of a secure lifestyle. Finding a purpose beyond the self has been a common defining trait of India’s changemakers, and the generation that fought for our freedom. These flourishing individuals aimed for glorious pursuits rather than materialistic ambitions, and found a higher meaning to their journey by leading a purposeful life. As issues of basic survival persist for a large portion of Indian society, India needs the force of fervent leaders and young minds to solve the toughest and most complex social challenges. For everything else, we will have machines and artificial intelligence.


  1. President of Public Health Foundation of India
  2. Director of the Institute of Rural Management
  3. Tribal activist
  4. Professor of Global Health, Harvard University
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