The Rediff US Special/ Aparna Narayanan
I really like capsicum," Meera Mani, a student newly arrived from Bombay, told her cousin in New Jersey. The puzzled and uncomprehending stare she received was soon explained. Mani had been calling the vegetable by its botanical name, while her cousin knew it as 'green pepper'.
Mani, now 21 and a biochemistry major and senior at Rutgers University, recalls many such instances. "The line is engaged," she said to someone, only to be told that the American term is, 'The line is busy'.
But getting used to the American idiom (despite English being her first language) was the least of Mani's difficulties. Like many Indian students who come to the United States for higher studies, she also had to learn to navigate the academic, social and cultural norms of this New World!
One of her early challenges was to make sense of the maze of electives her university offered. Mani, who was used to the science-arts-commerce divide in Indian schools, initially found the liberal arts eclecticism bewildering. "You have to make conscious decisions about how to budget your time and resources," she says, adding that students from India must learn to free their minds and open up to the possibility of studying literature as well as physics, Spanish, as well as biochemistry.
Socially, too, she found being an outsider in a world, where 'everybody knows everyone', daunting. "Most of the people here are from New Jersey and from high schools around here. It's a state school so there's not many international students. There are lots of graduate Indian students but not that many Indian undergrads," she says.
She described her experience of having lived in the dorms, and having been resident assistant, for two years, as 'incredibly important'. "The friends you make in the freshman year are friends you end up with. You would miss out if you lived off-campus, especially in the first year when people are looking out to make friends."
Mani knows the value of having friends, especially since the dorms close over the summer and winter breaks and she sometimes has to rely on friends for a place to store her luggage. If the vacation involves doing research at a lab, instead of visiting local relatives, she says, "I crash at friends for a couple of weeks."
Nitya Nair, a 19-year-old junior majoring in biotechnology at Rutgers, urged students headed to the United States for further studies to get involved in campus clubs and associations. "In my freshman year, I was not as involved as I could have been, in retrospect," she says, adding that these organizations are a great way to meet like-minded people and carve a niche for yourself.
When she first arrived from Kodaikanal, Nair was bemused by her fellow students's low level of awareness of the world outside the community. "Do you have flying carpets in India?" she recalled being asked.
Amused and enraged by such questions, Nair slowly realized they arise 'out of a desire to learn about the country'. New Indian students, when confronted by such stereotypes, should take a deep breath and tell themselves, "Maybe they are trying to learn more," she advises.
Suresh Gopalakrishman, 27, a Rutgers graduate student in computer science, feels Indian students come to the US and discover that on-campus housing for graduates is both limited and expensive. "They 'pile on' to seniors for a few weeks and run around for housing," he says.
Gopalakrishnan advises students coming to America to subscribe to e-mail lists, that offer information ranging from finding a place to live to tips on how to save money. One such tip: Bring textbooks from India, they are very expensive here. E-mail seniors or professors to find out what texts are used.
Shalini Bhutani, 44, director, Office of International Programs, International Students and Scholar Services, University of Pennsylvania, too has plenty of advice, for students planning to study in the United States. "Almost all universities have orientation programs, where the staff runs through issues like social security and a driver's license," she says. "Attend these programs, and before coming here, visit the home pages (on the Internet) of the office of international students of whichever university you plan to attend.
"All the immigration information will be posted there. Make sure you know what the immigration rules are and how they affect you: employment issues, applying to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for off-campus work, carrying documents in and out of the country, penalties for working illegally."
And on the social front, she adds, "Avoid staying like frogs in a well. Students should not tie themselves to their rooms." The international student associations, Bhutani says, are a great opportunity to 'plug into your home community'.
In the process, she advises, "They must also reach out across the university to other international students and to American students and to network and to learn from other people." Bhutani also urges students to familiarize themselves with the different socio-cultural norms of American society like dating, gender roles and alcohol, among others.
Stressing the importance of students asking for financial or academic help, if the need arises, she says: "Unless you ask for something, you will not receive it. This society rewards those who take initiative."
Design, illustration: Uttam Ghosh
The Fossil Fanatic
There is life after dotcom death
Lessons from Long Island
Back to top
Tell us what you think of this feature