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Creating a New School of Thought

A Lang Opportunity Scholarship helped her restructure education

In her last year of high school, Riana Shah ’14 started Independent Thought and Social Action International (ITSA) with the lofty goal of reimagining India’s educational system.

She knew that many students there had probably never been empowered in school to question authority and think critically. 

“It was an important project for me on an emotional level,” says Shah. “I wish that I had been exposed to that type of inquiry-based learning when I was a child” says Shah, who grew up in Ahmedabad, India, and moved to New York City as a teenager. 

On an operational level, ITSA was an emotional rollercoaster for the educational studies and sociology-anthropology double major. “It was really isolating and risky to be working on an entrepreneurial venture,” she says. “There were many moments where we were not sure if ITSA methods would work or if traditional schools would see value in what we were doing. But I was convinced that it was important to forge the path.” 

As she forged her path, Shah says the Lang Center advisors and her peers were also working on projects. "They became some of my closest friends and cheerleaders as I worked on ITSA," says Shah.

A full-time team now runs ITSA programming with Shah serving as board chair. With a presence in 19 cities across 11 countries, the nonprofit has worked with more than 20,000 students and teachers to rethink what the education model can look like. 

After graduating from Swarthmore, Shah focused on making ITSA self-sustainable then shifted to business affairs and IT research for higher education institutions. She now helps lead a university business and finance analytics product at the Advisory Board Co., heading a team of 15 data scientists and researchers to build a high-school to postsecondary student-success and retention model. Shah is also an adviser on ReciproCare, a health-care technology startup focused on diversifying economic opportunities for low-income home-care workers.

Ultimately, Shah’s experience teaching students to believe in their own ideas helped her to believe in her own. 

“Through ITSA, I, too, gained confidence in my ability to implement and make sustainable an idea,” she says. “I realized that I was an entrepreneur and leader at heart and, no matter where I go, I will continue to implement solutions to problems I see.”