Indian students find comfort of home in confines of US schools For the students from India, who come to the US for higher studies, the first few days are a period of adjustment to the new culture, new environment and even new process of education. But, there exists a support system in every US school for the Indian students to feel at home, say Alyssa Clough and Jasmyne McDonal, students of Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University, Evan-ston, IL.
By Alyssa Clough & Jasmyne McDonald Chicago: “The first week I cried a lot,” recalls Tamil Selvi Chakrapani, a graduate student pursuing her sixth master‟s degree at Northeastern Illinois University. Coming to America in 2007, marked the first time Chakrapani would be alone. Her parents were worried. She didn‟t know where to buy anything, catch the bus, or find a place to live. The classroom proved difficult too. “I was shocked the way they were teaching. I couldn‟t understand anything,” she says. Systems like Blackboard — an online Website professors use to post assignments — were foreign to her. When she first heard “blackboard,” she looked for the physical display where her assignments would be posted, but didn‟t find it. Reflecting on early experiences, Chakrapani points to four people who helped her adjust: her first professor, thendirector of the New Prospective Fellow Society Alice Pennamon, and Professor Narender Rao and his wife. That first professor gave her the academic foundation to succeed. He gave her extra time to complete assignments and explained what would be expected of her in American graduate school. “I appreciate the professors here,” Chakrapani adds. “I may be lucky, but got all good professors.” Professor Rao and his wife supported her socially and personally. She was excited they spoke her language. Over the last four years, they have broken bread together, attended movies and celebrated Diwali. “They are like my own brother and sister-in-law,” Chakra-pani says. Pennamon also provided support going to the social security office and helping her find an apartment. “We did a lot of things together. I encouraged her to be more assertive, to ask questions of her professors,” Pennamon says. She even hired Chakrapani to work in the graduate services office with her. Beyond the call of duty Through a unique program, Pennamon and some professors traveled to India with Chakrapani and four other students in 2009. She met Chakrapani‟s parents and learned about Indian culture. It provided greater understanding of how to support Indian students, which eased interactions with other Indian graduate students she has hired.
It‟s been four years since they first met and Chakrapani has adapted to life here, but Pennamon says: “Even now if she needs anything, she can just give me a call.” She isn‟t the only staff member, who provides a personal telephone number for students. Yasmin Ranney, the director for Asian and Global Resources at Northeastern‟s Angelina Pedroso Center for Diversity and Intercultural Affairs, is just a call away for students needing aid. “These are students that need my support,” the Indian native says. “They come back, they call, they e-mail, they‟re always in and out of my world, so it‟s a service. The interventions for me, I take very personally.” The warmth of multicultural centers Multicultural centers welcome students of diverse backgrounds. Illinois Wesleyan sophomore Mandish Mandava participated in a pre-orientation before his freshman year that allows students to meet the director of multicultural student affairs and other international students. Even though he hasn‟t felt a need to talk to the director about specific issues related to Indian students, Mandava says, “It‟s nice to know that someone is dedicated their whole time to multicultural students.” Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) graduate Veena Chatti describes International Student Services as a brilliant and helpful organization for international students that made sure they had valid immigration status with up-to-date visas. She says without their help, it would have been difficult to keep her paperwork in order. Ranney says although the school provides advisers for strictly academic purposes, multicultural centers are for any type of problem that needs to be addressed. “For students to have a center like this,” Ranney says, “this is their home away from home.” Twenty-two-year-old Jahanvi Thakkar works in the center. She identifies school as the most important thing in her life and often spends from 8:00 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. there. The connection with Ranney and the center is important to her experience. When talking with Ranney she knows “what‟s said between me and her stays between me and her,” she says. Thakkar doesn‟t want people to think she is favored for working there, but recognizes the benefits of engaging with other multicultural students who come in and out, knowing about upcoming events, and is working on founding an Indian dance troupe before she graduates in August 2012. Respect and education go hand in hand Thakkar‟s family moved to America in 2000 when she was 11 years old, so transitioning to college was not as difficult for her as for other students who first journey to the States for college. She cites a different grading scale in India where 90 percent is unheard of. She is very comfortable interacting with her professors, whereas in India, students are not as comfortable challenging authority figures. This may be one reason Indian students have little negative to say when asked about experiences with professors. Even when discussing an uncomfortable experience, DePaul graduate student Manini Patel stops short of criticizing her professor. The journalism student recalls one professor questioning her choice to major in journalism over a natural science or engineering.
“I didn‟t expect that question to be asked.” she says. “I wasn‟t sure how to take it, but I said I‟m not following what everyone else is doing. I guess the negative was that they doubted my abilities, but I proved to them „you‟re wrong about me.‟” When pushed to critique the professor‟s comments, she remains respectful and says: “It‟s not fun when you‟re called out for something ridiculous. At that point I didn‟t think it was fair but… I never changed the way I talked to people or the way I interacted with them (professors). I tried not to let it get to me. It‟s just one professor who didn‟t know his limitations.” Mandava discussed respect and education being important to Indian culture. His parents taught him to regard his teachers in a certain way. He believes professors notice and think of students who exhibit respect differently. Professor Mita Choudhury, an associate professor of English and Philosophy at Purdue University at Calumet, who came to America in 1983 as a graduate student, was surprised by students‟ behavior. “What struck me as very strange, and alien, I found my students had their feet up on the table and they were sitting there with their torn jeans and sipping their Coke and munching on snacks,” she says. “When I walked in, no one really cared.” It was a sharp contrast to students standing when educators enter a classroom in India. Pennamon‟s trip to India highlighted the same difference. “Not to say that all Americans don‟t respect teachers, it‟s just totally different. They respect their elders,” she says. Indian student groups pave the way Differences like this one are specific to Indian culture and are not always addressed in a broad multicultural center. Northeastern‟s Indian Student Association addresses nation-specific differences, practices, and observances. International businessman Iftekhar Shareef remembers the club from his matriculation in the early 1980s. During his university years, the group had about 50-60 students. Today, Rohit Joshi advises the group, which he was instrumental in restarting in 1994. He touts the main goal of the group as enjoying Indian heritage within a diverse community so everyone can enjoy Indian culture. As advisor, the Hindu priest invites diverse speakers to campus and supervises Northeastern‟s on-campus Diwali celebration. It is apparent that Joshi‟s relationship with students is important. He tries to explain life principles to students. Mandava has a close relationship with Illinois Wesleyan Professor Narendra Jaggi. They knew one another before Mandava began college and Jaggi talked to him about preparing for higher education. He also provides life advice. When asked who would be his second line of support if his parents were suddenly unavailable, Mandava thought of Jaggi. “I know he would give me the same general advice my parents would give me,” he says. Not for Indians only Chatti lists eight RIT professors and staff who were important to her undergraduate career. As she applies for Ph.D. programs, she thanks one teacher who helped and encouraged her in identifying graduate school as her next step. She also mentions a housekeeping staff person whom she greeted every morning. Chatti learned about the worker‟s children, shared what India was like, and assuaged fears that Chatti wouldn‟t survive the winter. “It was nice to get to know someone who was American, but wasn‟t a student or an academic,” she says.
Collectively, students emphasized that the nationality of faculty, staff, and administrators didn‟t matter. “I never thought it was particularly important to bond with anyone of the same nationality or ethnicity as myself. For that matter, I don‟t bond with people just because they are atheists or because they are also female or belong to similar socioeconomic groups or are the same age as myself,” Chatti says. These are simply not the things I consider important when it comes to bonding with people. I don‟t think any of my professors‟ nationalities or ethnicities affected my undergraduate experience.” Yet, there is added value to relationships with Indian university employees. “I‟m more comfortable with them. It‟s just about comfort and connections. You can share common interests,” Thakkar concludes.