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Studying in the US? Sample different courses

Archana Masih | November 23, 2005

As more and more Indian students travel to America for higher studies, they form one of the largest chunks of the international student community in the United States.

imageRecently, a contingent from Boston's Tufts University was in Mumbai to strengthen relations with its Indian alumni and counsel Indian students interested in studying abroad.


Dr Jamshed Bharucha
, provost and vice president, and professor of psychology, spoke to Assistant Managing Editor Archana Masih about how studying abroad patterns have evolved in recent years and about the unique courses offered at Tufts.

A psychologist who studies cognitive neurosciences and music perception, Dr Bharucha spent the first 17 years of his life in Mumbai and went to America on a student scholarship.

He studied at Vassar College, Yale and Harvard and feels that Indian students who go to study in USA should take advantage of the opportunity to study different courses and broaden their horizon by taking some courses outside their main area of study.

Which year did you go to USA to study?

I went in 1974.

You are a Bombay boy, aren't you?

Yes, I was a Bombay boy. My mother is American, but I grew up in Bombay. I spent 17 years of my life here. I went to Cathedral, I think for a year, and then to Bombay International and to St Xavier's College for a year and went off for undergraduate studies to the States. 

There was a time Indian students mostly went for degrees in medicine and engineering. What changes have you seen in their study preference now?

Science and engineering are still dominant but not as dominant as when I went to the States. Back then, it was science or nothing. There's a lot more healthy intellectual diversity now; people are studying the arts, humanities and social sciences. We have Indians in the school of nutrition, in law, in diplomacy.

We have a very large number of second generation Indian Americans in medical school. We have undergraduates, of course, who are doing arts and sciences and engineering.

So there's a lot of diversity. It's a lot healthier now than before. I think people should follow their passion and interest and should not be too concerned about the fact that society has tended to point people towards the sciences. 

What changes have you seen in the profile of the Indian student going for higher studies to the United States?

Much larger numbers. They are going to study a much wider range of disciplines. And there's much, much greater knowledge among Indian students coming to the United States about the US. People are much better prepared culturally.

For me it was a bit of a culture shock, even though my mother was American. Having grown up here, it was very different. India, of course, was very closed at that time so you didn't have much access to Western products, Internet and that kind of information.

Even the college application process was extremely complicated. You had to get a reference book with names of colleges or something like that. It was even harder to apply because it was actually difficult to purchase US dollars. So for each college I applied to in the States, I had to get special permission from the Reserve Bank of India.

I remember going to the Reserve Bank Office and these guys used to have these big, fat books and I used to purchase the dollars required for the application fee. It was a very cumbersome process.

There was very little information.

Now, Indian students have access to all the information on the tips of their fingers. So they can make much better choices. They are much better prepared. Of course, India has opened up so students are less likely to have a culture shock as they are much more familiar with what's going on.

Some students from more traditional backgrounds have a harder time adjusting, but the differences are day and night and mostly because of technology and how much India has changed.

It's all for the good. Most of the Indian students who come to Tufts are worldly wise, international in many ways.

There seems to be a desire among students to go and study abroad. They seem to have an understanding of this right from the time they are in school.

Yes, that's true. On the other hand, I think that because the Indian economy is doing so well and there are so much more opportunities that I feel there isn't the same incentive or pressure to go. From India's point of view, it will be good if universities and colleges are expanded and there are more opportunities here.

It's still hard for Indians to get into Indian colleges, in fact it's harder to get into the best Indian colleges than to get into the best American colleges.

I think if the number of available opportunities in colleges or universities here is expanded, probably there will be less of a desire to go abroad. The work opportunities in India are so much better now and a lot of Indians from abroad are coming back.

The economy is booming. India has a new confidence. In the States, India has a dazzling profile right now which is why I have been able to get a delegation of 80-90 people. Many of them are first time visitors to India. I can't remember a time when India was so attractive to the West. Indians in America are also seeing that and some of them are coming back.

How does the Indian study pattern differ from that in America?

For those who want a different kind of educational experience, there are options in the US in places like Tufts. One of the differences in the educational system is that here it is still more disciplinarian, or rigid if you like. You have to choose your subjects early and it is very hard to switch and you don't have the breadth.

In a place like Tufts -- there are others of course -- you can switch subjects, you can specialise in engineering and still take humanities, arts and social sciences. Or you could do the opposite. You can specialise or major in say music and take courses in engineering and people do that. You can do a double major.

We encourage students to diversify the courses because that's the only opportunity in life when you get a chance to really expand your mind. We think of ourselves as preparing young people for leadership. Leadership in whatever they do later on. We call that interdisciplinary. I think it's a very good thing but there's a trade off because the broader you get, the less depth you have. You need both, but you can always do that at the post-graduate level.

Our philosophy is at the undergraduate level to try and get the breadth. When you sample different things and are more mature to decide this is what you want to do, you can specialise in it.

In the States, medical schools for example, is a post-graduate subject. You first get your bachelor's degree and then go to medical school. I think knowledge is changing so fast that in any case the specifics of what you learn are no longer going to be valid in 10 or 20 years in whatever subject you are in.

So the value of the education is really developing your skills to know how to continuously learn and get in the habit of learning new things, and to counter the things that have been learned before so that you don't make the same kind of mistakes.

We are born with brains that are quite different from each other. You never know which aspect of the world is going to catch your interest. So you have to be exposed to different subjects before you know what interests you and what your brain resonates to.

Part II: Studying in the US? Sample new courses

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