Anirban Samanta, currently an MS student in Electrical Engineering at the University of California, Irvine, talks about the various aspects of his life as an international student living in the USA.
It’s a dream to some, to some it’s the promise of a better education/life, to some it’s a way to make lots of money, to some it’s just a tourist destination. I am here to tell you that America is more AND also less and at the same time it can be very strange indeed. I came to US in September of 2012 for my MS in Electrical Engineering. It turns out I came prepared in many ways but also had to adapt in many ways. When I was first asked about my experiences here in US, I was a bit confused as how best to present US to some aspiring Indian student. It needed some soul searching and some retrospective observations. I have not gone outside California and all my accounts are based on my experiences here in California.
Americans don’t care much for people who are scared of making a move for what they want. They don’t care for someone who is afraid to even try and instead spends time asking for help. Americans learn to do stuff by actually trying to do it and failing, again and again until they get it. Americans also don’t like to get into other people’s business. Combine the two and what you get are people who will ignore you trying to do something simple like trying to get a bike rack down. It’s not that they don’t want to help, it’s just that they have learnt that not helping you at that moment is the best help they can give you.
I faced this for the first time when my roommates and I first tried to take down a bike rack on a bus. We looked at the driver and he told us to take our time, but refused to help us. The instructions were there but we couldn’t understand at first and took some time doing it. We were amazed to find that the people on the bus (it was full) were not irritated at all and the driver encouraged us all the way through.
That “US is very different from India” is a major misconception. Due to globalization (Americanization) of urban India, USA is not very different from the major cities of India. Indians complain that it feels empty. Yes there is a lot more space here in the Western US, and everyone has big cars but other than that it’s no different than India. I am also told that Eastern US, where there is considerably less open space and more overpopulation, is a lot like India. That America doesn’t have corruption, is the biggest joke in the world. Here corruption is part of the system, but unlike India, it’s not an accepted idea. So the higher ups get their black cash, while the lower strata stays relatively clean. Americans are also as honest as most Indians are. They want what’s best for them and then everything else. That said, Americans are actually a lot more honest and truthful than Indians in general to the effect that it’s a lot more difficult to come across a person that tries to actively cheat you, than in India.
Some of the biggest challenges facing an international student are home sickness and home sickness induced stress. You will feel the desire to give up and go back. You WILL want the home-made food! Another problem is the difference in the education system and learning how to study for the American graduate school. You can actually, contrary to popular belief, CHEAT! But if you get caught, the punishment usually is to throw you out of school, which for an international student means the end of the dream. Do not think that they will not throw you out, since it’s common for American students to leave school and still be successful, so they do not see it as a career ending punishment. Differences in the way the education system is administered is also very different from India. The way you study is very different here. You are given homework every class or every week. You are welcome to miss turning in your homework but you will be losing precious marks. This starts from the first class you will have, so no time to settle in. Homework questions are rarely found in books and so rarely will you find the solutions to your problem. Also, there’s no use asking your seniors, the problems will be largely different from previous year. You can discuss among yourselves but be warned of not copying blindly and directly. If caught, you will face a full disciplinary committee and will get thrown out of US. The professor will genuinely be sad to do so but he will report you after failing you. One of my professors contacted us even before the start of the course to beg us not to do something stupid since he had to fail 4 other students the previous year for copying (no prizes for guessing those students were Indian). Thankfully the UC system is a lot more forgiving than most and first-offenders usually have the quarter dropped, but that’s still nearly $10,000 down the drain. If you need help regarding any administrative topic then be forthcoming and be honest. People know that your English communication may not be very good and they will go out of their way to help you. They know that you may be in stress and there usually is a very large support framework in place to handle any sort of student problems, from counselling to financial support to unfair action arbitration. So be honest with the administrative staff. I openly asked my departmental graduate adviser what options I had to reduce my expenses to the university. She told me of all the ways I could save money on tuition. They do want you to graduate with good feelings about the university even if they value a good income from all the international students. This is so that later they can approach you for donations – this is a very common practice and people do donate generously to their Alma-Mater.
In dealing with Home sickness, accepting that you are in a different country will help. Don’t look up the first Indian relative you can reach out to. Don’t ask around for the closest Indian store, don’t ask around for the closest Indian community. Try to talk to your neighbors if they feel approachable. Go to the different orientations and the different graduate parties hosted for YOU! You are away from home, tell yourself that even if you find it difficult to believe, that this is the best thing that could have happened to you. Also be prepared to try out new food. I will say this bluntly, you WILL miss Indian food after a while. Try to prepare yourself to eat beef. If you are too religious and will absolutely not touch beef then be prepared to look for the closest Chick-fil-A, KFC and McD, and if you are a vegetarian then God help you. You better be a good cook and if eating out order “vegan” and NOT “vegetarian” since they often use beef/pork stock to make soups and sauces. Also be prepared to sit around hungry and watch your friends gorge on burgers and hot dogs. I am not very religious and am an adventurous foodie so I have learnt to love Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Iranian, Moroccan, American and Mexican food. So food stopped being a problem since the flight meal on the way here.
The final major problem for international students I have noticed in my time here is that they find it very difficult to make friends with Americans. They will usually form small groups of their own community and while that can be a good source of support I feel having American friends can not only help with home sickness and stress but also help you understand the country that you are in and most likely will settle down in (statistics!). Americans grow up being independent and will not respond well to some stranger coming up to them looking to be friends. They will find it awkward and will avoid you. Look for some common ground between you, such as a common sporting interests, dancing, cycling, tennis.. anything works. Once they are comfortable around you then they will be much more responsive to becoming friends. Making friends come naturally to some, others have it perfected as an art-form. I was lucky to be interested in Karate and joining the UCI karate club was one of the best decisions I have made. I have a wonderful group of friends (including Americans) that has come to be more like a family away from home. We hang out 6 days a week, we train together and then we go out and then the whole group goes out together and has fun (Loneliness and home-sickness? I don’t have time for those). We visited Las Vegas and San Diego, did fund-raisers together and we have laser-tag, paintball, karaoke, etc. You get the point. Do something other than study! It will help you make friends and also help you keep the study from becoming too stressful, because it WILL get stressful.
My karate sensei says “if it doesn’t hurt then you are not pushing yourself hard enough”. It works in real life too.