Ivy ambitions: Six Indians walk path to Princeton

Ivy ambitions: Six Indians walk path to Princeton

He says he was simply tired of the question: science or arts?

Why not both?

“I want to have the freedom to choose," says the 17-year-old Dehradun native.

Around this time last year, he began to plot an exit, requesting and filling out forms, begging teachers for recommendations, penning essays that conveyed achievement and humility, determination and compassion, book- and street-smarts.

Eight applications sent off to the US+No preparation for entrance exams in India=No chance of staying.

And that’s how Gupta found himself in Mumbai one wet monsoon day in July to begin the long journey from home—and meet the others who would join him: Jahnabi Barooah , Shiv Mohan Dutt, Rohan Malik, Sukrit Silas and Nikhil Seth —India’s contributions to Princeton University’s class of 2011.

Mint assembled the bunch before an alumni reception to begin chronicling their experiences as they reflected on just what it takes to gain admission to one of the world’s best universities.

It is part of what we see as a multi-year effort to chronicle the Indian Education Dream. Mint intends to continue following these teenagers—and sometimes their families—as they become young adults in pursuit of college degrees and embark on forging a new identity in a new country. Indeed, the countless journeys of the Indian diaspora around the world began as this group’s has—students chasing their dreams through education.

Tushar Gupta, Dehradun

As Gupta and his classmates-to-be first gathered at the US consulate in Mumbai—and none fully realized it then—it would be an encounter that would mark the initial step in what would be a remarkable transformation, from children to adults, from students to graduates and maybe, from strangers to friends.

Together, the six students form the largest contingent of undergraduate students that Princeton has ever had from India. They reflect a trend that is worrisome and welcome all at once, of Indians leaving for the US to pursue undergraduate education, a brain drain for one country, a brain gain for another. Similarly, their reasons for leaving all they’ve ever known range from escape—of India’s more rigid education system—to embrace—of the exposure to process and possibility that the US inevitably offers.

Gupta grew up in Dehradun, not exactly a bustling metropolis. But his parents sent him to Delhi Public School in New Delhi for his last two years of school, and there his mind was set—America or bust.

He chafed under the artificial discipline of an Indian high school—wear a uniform, cut your hair short, science or arts (but never, never, both). He wants to be an engineer, he said, but he would like to study something else alongside, possibly a minor in philosophy. Even if he went to the best engineering college in India, assuming he got in, Gupta may never gain exposure to diverse fields as art and philosophy, architecture or foreign languages. Which explains why he didn’t even bother with the joint entrance examination, the test to screen applicants for the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

Indeed, in private schools across the country, going overseas as a teenager is fast becoming the norm, and in some cases, easier than admission into an Indian university.

Since the 2000-01 academic year, the number of Indian students leaving for the US rose from 55,000 to 83,833 last academic year. The overwhelming majority of these Indian students, 71.1%, are enrolled at the graduate level, while only 15% are undergraduate students, according to Open Doors survey, an annual review published by the US-based Institute of International Education.

In a separate report last year on student enrolment worldwide, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimated that China and India are the top countries of origin for international students, followed by South Korea, Japan and Germany.

In 2004, students from China accounted for 14% of all international students and India accounted for 5%, or 123,559 students.

In New Delhi’s elite Vasant Valley School, a growing one-third of graduates are opting to move on to college overseas—the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, Pomona College or others in Europe. The school’s website lists more than 50 foreign institutes that former students are attending.

Many are looking overseas to find themselves and dabble in multiple interests, says Saroj Tikku, the counsellor at Vasant Valley.

The atmosphere is multicultural, the curriculum is broad-based and stresses practical knowledge, he says. “The student gets an opportunity to grow as a person."

Counsellor Tikku helps students at every stage of the process, from advising them on where to apply, writing references, editing essays and even pitching in as they fill out form upon form. Teenagers such as Vasant Valley’s head student last year, Dutt.

Shiv Mohan Dutt, New Delhi

“My aunt really pushed me," he says, as each of the students begins sharing application horror stories at Lincoln House in Mumbai, headquarters and residence of the US consul general Michael Owen. Owen earned his graduate degree in public affairs from Princeton in 1975 and was hosting a reception so students could tap into the alumni network early.

As the choppy grey Arabian Sea outside whipped up in wind, Owen’s son Brendan, an undergraduate at Princeton two years their senior, regaled the eager group with stories of life on campus.

Indeed, that is the attraction of Princeton, a member of the eight-university Ivy League, which this year accepted only 9.7% of 18,942 applicants. It has spawned graduates such as John Nash (class of 1950), mathematician and Nobel Prize winner in economics; Jeff Bezos (1986), founder of Amazon.com; Steve Forbes (1970), businessman and publisher of Forbes magazine, Eric E. Schmidt (1976), chief executive of Google.

In India, Princeton alumni are scattered across the private and public sectors, including HDFC Bank executive director Renu Karnad, Boston Consulting Group managing director Janmejaya Sinha, and special assistant to the finance minister Rajul Awasthi.

In recent years, graduates have been more active as interest from Indian students in their alma mater surges. The year-old Princeton Club of India, an alumni association, facilitates much of the interaction between prospective students and the university, helping the admissions office better understand the Indian education system.

“One of the primary functions that the club helps with is to interview the Indian applicants for Princeton. It’s a big job given that our application pool reached more than 250 last year," says club president Ranjan Pal, who lives in Gurgaon and received his master’s degree in public affairs in 1984.

His group may have a bigger job in coming years. As parents choose private schools to prepare their children for a global economy, schools are rapidly evolving. India is seeing an unprecedented growth in the number of “international schools" with more than 100 offering global curricula, from International Baccalaureate (IB) to the Cambridge International Examination to study-abroad programmes.

Rohan Malik, Gurgaon

As Rekha Kalle, regional officer, United States Educational Foundation in India, points out, the boom in international schools will only drive the numbers of students such as Malik higher. The foreign universities are aware of the emerging appeal of getting an undergraduate education abroad. “Many of the universities are planning to go back and see what they can offer these students," says Kalle.

Despite seeing an India where more and more became possible all their lives, these students don’t think the country is quite there—yet.

Sukrit Silas, Agra

“The education here is comparatively restrictive," Silas says. “Many times, you have to take what you get in terms of specialization."

As the group in Mumbai begins to open up, Silas, an effervescent personality with a fuzzy upper lip and chin, throws his hands up in the air as he describes two of the recommendations, which he claims, were “horrible". The others nod knowingly.

He mentions his parents’ support through the entire process, particularly with menial chores such as ensuring that the right application went into the right envelope, as being crucial.

Jahnabi Barooah, Guwahati

“My father studied in the US. And from the time I was a kid, he would tell me how good the education was there," says the 18-year-old from Guwahati who attended Delhi Public School in Faridabad, citing that as her main motivation to keep going.

She became a regular at the post office. She sat through interviews with alumni in India. And then she waited.

Barooah was accepted everywhere.

The students mostly found out through middle-of-the-Indian night emails that they had gotten in. Silas says he knew acceptances would be emailed around 5pm, eastern standard time, so he waited up and watched Godzilla to pass the time. Finally, around 4am, India time, he checked his email. And woke up the whole house to share his joy.

But then Yale University also accepted him. Silas almost tossed a coin between two Ivy League schools to make his decision. Yale or Princeton, Princeton or Yale, Yale or Princeton?

For Gupta, the choice was between the University of Pennsylvania, also a member of the Ivy League in Philadelphia, and Princeton. It seemed like their blessing—some of the best colleges in America wanted them—had become a curse. But for Silas, finally a trip to the US and one look at the awe-inspiring architecture at Princeton, where ivy really does crawl on the walls, made up his mind.

Nikhil Seth, Mumbai

As it turned out, the class of 2011 was the last to benefit from an early admissions programme; both Harvard and Princeton, along with several other elite colleges, have stopped the practice this year, saying it does not allow low-income students to compare financial aid packages and offers.

The change did not put a bump in Seth’s road map. He left India in 2003 to enrol at Tabor Academy, on the waterfront in Marion, Massachusetts, an elite prep school, which only accepts 145 students a year, and costs about $40,000 (Rs15.84 lakh) a year. And then the Mumbai-born lad just set his sights on Princeton.

Clearly, Princeton has a big appeal in India—even a DLF Ltd development in Gurgaon, whose names tend to reflect success and aspiration, is called “The Princeton".

While the quality of education is the key parameter, for some such as Dutt, other attractions also tip the scale. “Princeton is a great place for an education. But even better, chess is supposed to be a big thing at the university," he says, grinning. “That was a huge plus for me," he adds, saying he can’t wait to play with the grandmasters on campus.

And so, as the night draws to a close, each begins plotting the next move, the next dream, not knowing or disclosing all yet. They know their paths will cross again. Very soon.


Next: The students say goodbye to families, friends and the only country they have ever called home—and wonder if they will ever come back. In Mint on 28 November.