A Davis UWC Scholar’s Enduring Passion for Philosophy: Sanyum Dalal (SF25)

November 9, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa

Sanyum Dalal (SF25)

For Sanyum Dalal (SF25), a love of philosophy was ignited in high school, setting her on a rewarding intellectual path she’s still pursuing.

Dalal is a graduate of Mahindra United World College in Pune, India, and one of the many students who come to St. John’s from the Davis United World College (UWC) Scholars Program. The UWC system comprises 18 schools on four continents, and Davis is the largest privately funded international scholarship program in the world.

St. John’s is among the roughly 100 colleges or universities in the U.S. that qualify as Davis partner institutions. That means that when a Davis Scholar enrolls in one of them for undergraduate education, the UWC program provides financial support through grants that support need-based scholarships.

Davis Scholars at St. John’s are eligible to receive a four-year, full-tuition scholarship, thanks to an anonymous 2019 alumni gift that funds the difference between the cost of tuition and any UWC Davis scholarship.

Dalal first became aware of the UWC movement when a friend’s sister applied to Mahindra. Dalal did some research and was herself drawn to the school, both for its International Baccalaureate curriculum and the fact that it “focused on developing an individual’s potential and their thinking rather than training everyone to fit the needs of the job market.”

A central factor in attending UWC and St. John’s was the financial assistance made available from both institutions. “I really would not have been able to afford UWC if not for the copious amount of scholarship money and the support that I received from them for my college education.”

Being introduced to philosophy by a teacher at Mahindra was a defining moment for Dalal—one that continues to reverberate. “I got a chance to critically assess my own thinking and the opinions that I’d held all the way up to 11th grade,” she says. “That process really changed me and how I understood the world around me.”

Her passion for philosophy inspired to start her own project, Philosophy for Children, which entailed traveling to primary, middle, and high schools in India—rural and urban—to conduct supplementary educational sessions for students.

“I would bring a story or poem or a short video clip, and that would be the ‘text’ around which we would have a discussion, much like how we do at St. John’s, minus the classics,” Dalal explains.

“My favorite activity, which always had amazing discussions emerge from it, is called the evil-o-meter. It’s ten concise descriptions of situations that are morally ambiguous, and we get a the group of kids to place those ten situations in order, from most evil to least evil according their own judgments about them. There’s a lot of debate that arises, and the discussion brings out the kind of thinking processes that the students are using in making their judgments. Since they are forced to confront their own moral choices, the students start reflecting on their own life when they argue for their position in discussion. The method of classroom dialogue is eventually internalized and, ideally, turns into a self-reflective thinking process for each student.”

Dalal found UWC faculty and administration extremely supportive of student initiatives, and after graduating from Mahindra, she won a GoMakeADifference (GoMAD) project award, which allowed her to conduct teacher-training sessions for schools that wanted to incorporate Philosophy for Children into their curricula.

Dalal says she reflects frequently on Philosophy for Children. “Having done that project, I find makes it a lot more easy and interesting for me to participate in St. John’s-style discussions.”

She was introduced to the college by a UWC teacher who completed the Eastern Classics Program. “He told me that I would really like St. John’s, and that it would be a great fit for me,” she recalls. “I was really blown away that there existed a higher education institution that had a small student body, small class sizes, and that encouraged conversations in the classroom that challenged your thinking, that pushed you to try to understand better what you know and what you don’t know and examine your habits of thought.”

Dalal admits that she had some initial trepidation about studying the classics. “Because my encounter with philosophy before St. John’s had been through dialogue and conversation with others, not through dialogue with authors in primary texts, I was hesitant about whether they would speak to me in a meaningful way. But I ended up loving all of the books that we read. They’re all interesting, and they all speak to the same questions I was deeply concerned with prior to coming here.”

On campus, Dalal is involved with a handful of student groups, including the Student Committee on Instruction. “Part of what we do is organize guerrilla seminars, which are seminars around texts that are not on the Program but are connected to a text on the Program,” she says.

As a Pritzker Promise Bridge peer mentor, she helps equip underrepresented incoming freshmen with the tools they need to succeed at college, and as a Resident Advisor (RA) she’s able to use some of the mediation skills she gained through Philosophy for Children.

Dalal is also a Writing Assistant, which she likens to leading the Philosophy for Children groups, “except,” she says, “it’s one-on-one. People come to you either with an idea or lacking an idea, and you try to get them talking about a part of the text that they care about or are perplexed by.” The next step is “to push their thinking towards the critical and interesting questions presented by the text—what I would call a juicy question.”

After St. John’s, Dalal plans to attend graduate school for philosophy. “I want to continue exploring questions that concern me, and I want to do that through classical texts and the great books,” she says. She notes that while “there are very few departments that do the same thing that we’re doing at St. John’s,” political science and political philosophy programs both come close.

Dalal wants to keep moving forward with Philosophy for Children, too. “After I graduate, I would very much like to restart that project. I think that’s what I realized after coming here: that teaching—especially at St. John’s—is what I want to do,” she says.

“I cherish the prospect of spending my life reading and thinking about these books and their ideas with others. I would never have imagined that I would end up here and that I would be doing something that I love this much.”