Hope and amazement were the order of the day as the first-ever career fair got underway in Bastar, a Maoist hotbed in Chhattisgarh.
Most of the students here have grown up amid bombed school buildings and have learnt the hard way to accord day-to-day survival precedence over education.
An interaction with students of the strife-torn region gives an insight into the lack of awareness among them about the host of opportunities they can avail of in the world beyond their troubled environs.
"I have heard about courses in engineering and medicine, but my father, a small-time farmer, said they are not meant for us," said Mukesh Markam, a Class XI student from Sukma, whose collector Alex Paul Menon was abducted and subsequently released by the Maoists recently.
Several instances of similar helplessness emerged at the two-day Bastar Career Festival organised by the district administration in collaboration with the Essar Foundation, in a bid to help students break free from the shackles of ignorance.
"Blame it on the lack of information and exposure for students of the Maoist-affected districts of the Bastar zone," Bastar collector Anbalgan P said.
But the tremendous response the career fest has got is a sign that with constant efforts, the scenario might change.
"We were pleased to see over 7,000 students attend the event," the collector added.
The students in attendance had come from all over the seven insurgency-hit districts that comprise the Bastar zone and most of them admitted they had little or no idea about higher education options they could pursue after Class XII.
In fact, it was this vulnerability of students that first sowed the germ of the career fest.
"The credit of the initiative goes to the local youth who I overheard ruing the fact that despite clearing Class XII, they were still 'good for nothings'," Deepak Arora, vice-president of the Essar Foundation, said.
For students who have grown up assuming education meant nothing more than obtaining a basic knowledge of a few subjects, besides of course, learning to read and write, the career fest proved to be a gateway to a parallel universe.
Curious students were seen exploring the various stalls put up at the venue by various institutes offering a variety of courses, the academic organisations and the banking sector.
"I was surprised to know that some institutes offer short-term courses that can help me secure a well-paying job," Bhola Sukalu, from Kanker, said.
Till date, only a few from the region have managed to crack professional or civil services examinations. So, they were roped in for the event to share their stories with the students to inspire them. Also playing a role were educational counsellors and experts from different vocations, who gave lectures about the various job options available through professional courses. A helpline was launched, too, for career guidance to students living in remote areas.
Collector Anbalgan said it wasn't a one-off event, adding that they hope to take their mission to its logical conclusion.
"We are preparing a database of students with their contact details. They will be informed in advance about the various forthcoming competitions and employment-oriented exams," he said.