Four years or forever? Six teens bid farewell to home

Four years or forever? Six teens bid farewell to home

New Delhi/Mumbai: They are still kids really.

But in the last weeks of August, as they packed their bags to go chase their future in one of the best universities of the world, they were all, in their own unique ways, struggling to say one word: goodbye.

Rohan Malik’s family decided not to even try. They had tasted the bitterness of parting two years ago, when they packed the Gurgaon boy’s bags, and sent him to Pune to study at the prestigious Mahindra United World College for the last two years of high school.

Instead, on his last day in India, his family pretended it was just another day.

It didn’t work. The tears came in spite of it all.

Shiv Mohan Dutt, tall, gangly and unsure of where his limbs are supposed to go (until he sits down at a piano and plays Chopin), rides to the airport with his father. His mother stays at home. His sister, Riya, 13, does the crying. And then goes back to knitting the sweater she’s been struggling all summer to make for him.

Tushar Gupta is supposedly the lucky one. After all, his goodbyes are more like half-goodbyes. His dad is going to America with him, studying for a master’s while his son pursues a bachelor’s, an uncommon symmetry that has father and son becoming equals as students. Jahnabi Barooah, who plans to take advantage of Jet Airways’ discounts for international students, and her family also play it cool; she will be back at Christmas.

Parting portrait: Rohan Malik (right) at his Gurgaon home with parents and brother Raghav (left), who is quite literally following in his elder brother’s footsteps.

Just under 85,000 Indian students went overseas last year. Some will return. Others won’t. Thus, the student visa—awarded to almost half a million foreigners annually at colleges across the US—becomes a de facto first stage of immigration. Never mind the fact that the green stamp on their passports reads “F-1 Non-Immigrant Visa", a tacit nod to the fact that they are allowed into the US to study, and then expected to return home.

Many, of course, do just the opposite.

The day before he was to leave, Shiv Mohan Dutt, the piano-playing teenager, savoured the last hours in his family’s house in Gurgaon. His father, Girish Mohan Dutt, 50, has spent his life travelling around the world, working on ships as a captain. And now, when it’s time for his son to start off on his travels, he admits to a little nervousness. He plans to give Shiv the speech—that speech where the father warns the son to be careful around drink, women and drugs and ends with a hug.

“He’s a sensible kid," says Girish Dutt. “He’s stable, much more of a grown-up than other kids his age."

But still, when Shiv isn’t around, his father turns to a visitor and wonders out aloud.

“What do you think it will be like for him? Will he be lonely?" he asks.

“He said he had to think about something," she says. “He’s always been a little grandfather, even when he was a kid."

He’ll be fine, she says. But he won’t come back, she guesses.

Unlike these six, nearly three-quarters of Indian students going overseas pursue graduate degrees. Some arrive with or send back for spouses and children, adding to the two-million-strong Indian diaspora scattered across the US. A study by Michael G. Finn of the US-based Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, prepared for the US government, found 86% of Indian doctorate recipients in 1996 were still in the country five years later, a “stay rate" second to China.

Their success is not without resentment. Immigration, both legal and illegal, has emerged as a hot topic in next year’s US presidential elections. A recent immigration Bill that would have granted an automatic green card—the right to live and work freely in the US—to foreigners studying critical areas, namely science, technology and engineering, sputtered and failed.

This group remains largely undecided on their majors, but say they chose to study in the US to gain exposure to other fields. Currently, Asian students, including Indians, make up the largest group of non-white students in Princeton’s undergraduate and graduate programmes.

Overall, international students at Princeton have increased in recent years to make up 11% of the current freshman class, up from 10% last year and 9% the year before. “We recognize that having a diverse community contributes to the intellectual growth of students and to the educational vitality of our campus," says Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt.

Besides the desire for global exposure, Cliatt partly credits a revised financial aid policy for the growth. In 2001, Princeton, a member of the elite eight-college Ivy League, replaced loan programmes with grants to ensure students weren’t saddled with debt upon graduation. In reporting on the landmark decision, the campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, reported: “The University will also become only the fourth university in the country to admit international students on a need-blind basis."

That has made a big difference to this group of students, despite their upbringing in generally affluent or middle-class families. At Princeton, the estimated cost of attendance for 2007-08 is $47,375 (about Rs18.90 lakh), of which tuition is $33,000.

Princeton is not unique in this policy—many schools in America have adopted such “need-blind" admission, on the basis of merit. For the richest colleges, whose endowments can run into billions of dollars and generate millions in interest alone, funding a few star students entirely each year is part of the cost of doing business—it lifts their academic profiles and diversity.

Other colleges, especially the smaller ones, can’t afford to be as generous. In fact, a survey by the US-based Institute for International Education showed that overseas families primarily fund 63% of international students. Less than 1% are funded by the US government.

The six from India consider themselves fortunate to have received substantial aid from Princeton. Significantly, Barooah is receiving $41,000 in a university grant, while the others also have secured a combination of grants and programmes that allow them to work on campus. Dutt, for example, head student at Vasant Valley School in New Delhi last year, will manage with aid and support from his parents; still, he plans to work. Malik received a partial scholarship through his high school, which pays the portion Princeton determines he needs.

Tall ambitions: Shiv Mohan Dutt packs his bags at his Gurgaon home.

Princeton came knocking this January with an early admission offer; he remembers receiving the email over winter break—his younger brother, Raghav, kept punching him in excitement.

Several months later, Raghav watches the preparations with a sense of admiration. He is following, literally, in his brother’s footsteps. Around the time Rohan will leave, so will Raghav, but to the same school in Pune that his elder brother went to.

“The house will really be empty," says their father, Sanjiv Malik. “It’s like we are losing both at the same time."

Sanjiv Malik lived overseas before, Thailand and the US, among other places. But he came back to an India in the midst of change—as the economy opened up with jobs for folks like him—as a top finance guy at Emaar MGF, an infrastructure firm.

Rohan assures him that he is simply escaping Indian-style education, not India: “I want to come back, spend some more time at home."

His mother, Vandana, shakes her head. Maybe, maybe not, she says. “I really wish he can come back, that India offers him a great job and he can come back and live in his old room."

“I am doubtful," says his father. “Out there, there is so much more to do."

Next: The students arrive on campus and forge new identities in a new home. In Mint on Thursday.