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Away from home, students reinvent selves, yet hang on

Away from home, students reinvent selves, yet hang on
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First Published: Thu, Nov 29 2007. 01 15 AM IST

Oozing confidence: Indian students (from left) Sukrit Silas, Shiv Mohan Dutt, Nikhil Seth and Tushar Gupta on the Princeton campus. They arrived here in September, along with two others, Rohan Malik a
Oozing confidence: Indian students (from left) Sukrit Silas, Shiv Mohan Dutt, Nikhil Seth and Tushar Gupta on the Princeton campus. They arrived here in September, along with two others, Rohan Malik a
Updated: Wed, Apr 02 2008. 11 08 AM IST
Princeton, New Jersey: Already, this place has lived up to their dreams.
Tushar Gupta is floored by the beauty of a centuries-old campus. Jahnabi Barooah is in awe of unlimited ice cream in the dining hall. Shiv Mohan Dutt marvels at how smart everyone really is.
Oozing confidence: Indian students (from left) Sukrit Silas, Shiv Mohan Dutt, Nikhil Seth and Tushar Gupta on the Princeton campus. They arrived here in September, along with two others, Rohan Malik and Jahnabi Barooah, and became busy almost immediately, rushing off for trips that preceded lectures on drugs and alcohol, grades and sexual harassment.
The six students from India in their first year at Princeton University arrived in September, some with parents in toe, others embarking on the trip alone. (Mint has been tracking their journey for some months now as part of its The Indian Education Dream series, which began on 27 November.)
They became busy in a matter of minutes, rushing off for days of camping, volunteer projects and international student trips that preceded serious lectures on drugs and alcohol, grades and sexual harassment. At least then, the thinking goes behind such orientations to orientations, they might start the school year with friends.
It was here, in between rafting on the Delaware River and hoisting food on to branches out of bears’ reach, that Sukrit Silas of New Delhi found himself—as part of an alleged bonding exercise—wiggling his behind in the woods and saying, “Jump, jump, shake your booty” laughing nervously and self-consciously at first and then with more gusto and sincerity as the days passed.
Princeton
Yet, even as the US literally initiated him, Silas also entered the ether of the 21st century immigrant. He unexpectedly asserted as much Indianness as he could.
Such as speaking Hindi to anyone who looked remotely, well, brown, and strategizing places where he could watch the Twenty20 World Cup cricket matches. Even hanging on to his distinct Indian accent—a manner of speaking often the butt of jokes in American movies and cartoons.
“I just want to retain it for some inexplicable reason. You would never catch me saying this in high school. It’s not even that I really wanted to be American back then. I just didn’t really care,” says the Agra-born Silas who graduated from St Xavier’s in New Delhi. “Even if I get an American accent, I should be able to revert to the Indian.”
Once back on campus for freshman orientation in mid-September, they joined Mint at PJ’s Pancake House, an off-campus restaurant and institution almost as fabled as their 261-year-old university. They compared notes on first impressions, room-mates, courses and meal plans. Really, they all said, they never expected the dining halls to have so much food. Waffles, pasta, salads, chicken, tofu and desserts, so many desserts.
“All that ice cream will make the Freshman 15 come true,” says Barooah, referring to the weight gain common in the first year of college. “It’s not the Freshman 50, is it?” jokes Dutt, teasing the only woman in the group.
Gupta, initially quiet but slowly revealing himself as affably quirky and endearing, asks if anyone else has to repeat himself three times to be understood.
Dutt shrugs, although minutes later he will pronounce his Princeton experience just “too good”—slipping back into an Indianism in the presence of fellow Indians.
The top student at the elite Vasant Valley School in New Delhi, Dutt landed a generous scholarship package and says he has settled in surprisingly quickly. Dutt considers himself lucky for the on-campus job he was assigned—stuffing envelopes and answering questions at the library. Even as he watches his wallet to pay for the remainder of the education, he won’t convert from dollars into rupees. “You won’t buy anything if you do that.”
Most of these kids hail from comfortable, affluent families and grew up in an India that opened its borders to the world in 1991; they’ve watched MTV and Hollywood movies, and came of age in many ways feeling connected to the US. Even so, they’ve experienced their share of culture shock.
Silas’ work on campus, for example, involves sweeping the dining hall and washing dishes. At freshman orientation, though, he’s bragging that so far all he’s had to do is get paid $25, just under Rs1,000, for training, or “sitting around and eating our meals”, he laughs. He also partook in a Quidditch game, the made-up sport in J.K. Rowling’s popular book series, a real icebreaker in this generation that considers Harry Potter a peer.
Touch down: Nikhil Seth, Tushar Gupta, Sukrit Silas, Rohan Malik, Shiv Mohan Dutt and Jahnabi Barooah
Barooah, raised mostly in Guwahati until her parents encouraged her to board at Delhi Public School in Faridabad, skipped the traditional international orientation to volunteer with abused and runaway children in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital just a half-hour drive from her leafy campus—and yet worlds away. “To be in the richest country in the world and see so many homeless people … it’s not expected at all,” she says.
When asked why poverty so bothers her, when she grew up surrounded by it in India, Barooah and the others insist the US is supposed to be different. However, after being accosted by hundreds of extracurricular activities, they are impressed by a spirit of volunteerism.
They swap names of groups they’ve joined, and Barooah is delighted to learn that Gupta is interested in the Princeton Animal Welfare Society (yes, that stands for PAWS).
There’s also a Ganesh puja coming up in her dormitory, Barooah reports, organized by a new Indian friend. “Is she American-Indian or an actual Indian?” asks Silas. “They are more Indian than I am!” she answers.
Silas and Gupta say they are speaking more Hindi than ever, partly to hang on, partly to bond with the other Indian students they are meeting.
While these six represents the largest group of Indian nationals in an undergraduate class, there are a smattering of upper class members from India, many American-born desis, as they’re called, and graduate students who emigrated like them.
New Jersey, the state that houses Princeton University, is also home to 200,000 of the estimated two million Indians in the US; the state’s Indian population more than doubled between 1990 and 2000. Through friends and family back in India, many of these students have been given the phone number of a random contact in the state who they can call “just in case.” Barooah’s distant cousin—she cannot explain how they are related—lives in the next town.
The incoming Class of 2011 has 15% Asian students; no campus breakdown of the total number of Indian students—combining nationals and the diaspora—was available. Harvard Business School recently announced that for the first time Indians form the largest group of foreign students in its current class, 38 out of 900 students.
But arriving in the US as a graduate student versus an undergraduate is a vastly different experience. At 17 and 18, these students admit they still don’t know what they want to do, who they want to be, let alone where.
“I feel different,” Gupta admits, choosing his words carefully. “But here, different is encouraged. The only thing common to us is that we’re intelligent.”
Indeed, they are.
Nikhil Seth, whose pursuit of the overseas education dream began earlier than the others at a Massachusetts boarding school, details a weekend running on the squash court and then to an astrophysics/rocket fuel meeting.
Rohan Malik, a student from the Mahindra United World College in Pune, recently attempted to write a novel modelled after J.R.R. Tolkien.
Early this month, Dutt spent a Friday night in a two-hour chess game—he won.
After a breezy orientation, Silas’ dining hall work actually became, well, work. But he looked on the bright side, saying he’s gotten to know many international students that way and made friends.
The difficulty of classes, especially computer science, Barooah says, has been humbling—and made her a coffee addict.
In the 11 October issue of The Daily Princetonian, she was asked to write about home. She describes being touched that her room-mate Adelle saved her bits of an “Indian food study break” in Forbes Hall because Barooah was stuck in physics lab.
She wrote: “Strangely enough, I rarely feel homesick here. Maybe it’s because of the work that keeps my mind occupied almost all the time. Or maybe it’s because I went to boarding school for the last two years of high school. Or maybe I knew that I had to accept this ‘strange’ place as my home for the next four years.”
They have no idea how the next few years, or even few months, will pan out. Majors remain undecided, visits back home unknown, friends still to be made. But they know they will be different—in many ways, they already are, from the rainy evening in Mumbai when they first met for an alumni reception.
“The ideas I had haven’t changed,” says Silas. “But my identity, I feel it is.”
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First Published: Thu, Nov 29 2007. 01 15 AM IST