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UK studies: 'We slept in a public park on uncomfortable benches.'
Ajay Pal Agarwal
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July 16, 2007

With departure dates rapidly approaching, Indian students are booking tickets and preparing to leave for international universities.

To ease their concerns and answer their questions, we've asked students who are already studying abroad to share their experiences.

Today, we share the story of Ajay Pal Agarwal, who studied at Canterbury University in the UK in 2002. He has a Bachelor's of Engineering in Telecommunications and Electronics.

n India, it takes courage to move to a new city for a job, live in a college hostel or share a flat with other young professionals. 

Because it's within our own country, however, it makes it financially and emotionally feasible. Even if something goes terribly wrong, we can always rely on our parents for support.

But think of the Indian student who goes abroad for studies. Who will help him?

He's living in one of the world's most expensive nations. He must simultaneously study and earn a livelihood from day one of his arrival.

Not to mention the tremendous pressure from family, friends and finances. Taken together, it's enough to weaken anyone's heart. If something goes wrong, he cannot even consider returning to India. Air tickets cost a fortune, and even if he manages to fly home, he'll be the constant source of ridicule and silent teasing from those around him.

'There he is.' They'll say. 'The boy who used up all his money to go abroad, and couldn't even earn a degree!'

But what if he manages to succeed and overcome all these problems? What if he triumphs over difficulty and learns about himself in the process? What if he's not alone, but finds buddies in a similar situation?

This success story is my story, and I'd like to share it with you.

We were four guys from different parts of India -- Micky from Punjab, Surinder from Delhi, Ranganathan from Hyderabad and me, Ajay Pal Agarwal, from Chattisgarh. This story details our initial stuggles in a foreign land.

Let's start at the beginning, 28 October 2002, 7:30 am at Heathrow Airport in London [Images], UK. 

Ranganathan and I were destined to meet right at Heathrow. After my flight, while waiting to go to Coventry, I approached him for friendship. Back home, I probably would have refrained from approaching a very thin (as if coming from a drought-hit village), weak-eyed, south Indian. But he showed simplicity and intelligence through our little bits of conversation, so I introduced myself and we fast became friends.

We reached Coventry and went to a university hotel. That's when the financial problems started; the hotel cost a bomb! We mutually decided that it was too expensive, and so we didn't take a room. We left our suitcases and belongings with an Indian worker, whom we met on our way from the airport, and headed straight for a public park.

There, we strategised and debated our housing situation. Here's a piece of advice for soon-to-be-students -- plan your accommodation before you leave!

After much conversation, we decided to rent a room for two from a nearby house. But to our surprise, we found out that this was impossible. Instead, we needed to rent an entire house. Of course, this was far too expensive for two of us, so we went in search of roommates. 

I tried to contact my cousin, in hopes of getting temporary accommodation and free food. Unfortunately, I didn't have his mobile number or his address, and I soon grew frustrated. At about this point, I was wondering what kind of situation I had gotten myself into.

Luckily, Ranganathan's intelligence and ability to speak Tamil helped us when things looked desperate. He met a stranger named Subash, who was obviously Indian, and asked him for help.

Subash was our saviour. He made about 15 calls through his 'Indian' network, and he eventually managed to find my cousin's mobile number through a friend of a friend of a friend! I guess it's true -- the world is so small that you can find anyone, as long as you really want to.

We went to my cousin's house who was sharing it with other Indians. It was truly a 'little India' in the middle of a foreign land. I can't explain how soothing, heart warming and relaxing it was. In the midst of pressure and uncertainty, some food and tea that reminds you of home and a warm bed is all you want in life.

But we knew these happy days must come to an end; my cousin told us that would could not stay long because the landlord would create problems. So 48 hours later, Ranganathan and I were on the streets searching for a house and two roommates.

The next two days, Ranganathan and I slept in random houses here and there. Friends of my cousin took us in, but no one could keep us for long. The next two days, things got even worse. We slept in the public park on uncomfortable benches. The cold weather (5 to 10 degree centigrade) and blowing wind made sleep almost impossible.

Lying under the twinkling stars, I was thinking of the luxurious life I had led in my parents house. I had one big jacket, a suitcase and a handbag -- that was all. I'll never forget this experience for the rest of my life.

Hunting for roommates, we luckily met fellow Indians, Surinder and Micky, on the streets. They had temporary housing, but needed a permanent place to stay. We agreed to live together, the four of us.

Everyone was nervous, as classes were to start in only three more days. 

Finally, after five days on the hunt, we found the perfect house. 

Of course, it didn't work out. The British lady, who owned the house, demanded a lot of money because it was newly refurnished and repaired. The problems started there and continued to escalate. She made many ridiculous demands, none of which were practical. Ultimately, we agreed to look elsewhere.

Finally, just two days before our first classes, we found an Indian landlord, Rimpy from Punjab. She agreed to have us, and we soon designated her 'Rimpy Aunty'. But she had many concerns and made us agree to a code of conduct, which had many rules. Here are a few examples:

We agreed on terms and moved in on the same day. It was a surreal experience. I'd only been in the UK for a week and my life was so drastically changed.

I was excited to see what would happen once classes started!

Part II: Life with Rimpy Aunty


~ Are you a student who is studying/ has studied abroad? What advice would you have for other students who may soon be pursuing studies in a foreign country? What are your experience as an international student? What were the things you wished you knew before you left home? Write to us at and we will feature your experiences right here.

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