Academic links between India and the US have grown exponentially since the first woman student from India arrived on a US university campus in 1883. The tide of Indian students going to the US started to rise in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was in the latter part of the 20th century that the numbers surged. The Open Doors 2019 report on student mobility, sponsored by the US Department of State, says the number of Indians studying in the US crossed the 200,000 mark, up 3% over the previous year.

The number of Indian students to the US has doubled in the last 10 years. NAFSA: Association of International Educators, in one of its reports, advocated that international students on US campuses are its greatest foreign policy assets. The report highlighted the contribution of foreign students to the US economy, estimated to be about $39 billion, of which the share of Indian students was $8.1 billion in 2018-19.

The Indian diaspora’s accomplishment is visible in several areas. CEOs of companies such as Microsoft, Adobe and Google are of Indian origin who started their journeys in the US as students. Presidents of several US universities like the University of Houston, University of California, San Diego, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, received their initial education in India before going to the US for higher studies. The American landscape is dotted with ‘success stories’ of Indian students that can be attributed to the quality of education and opportunities they received in the US.

The political discourse in India on student mobility has shifted from the ‘brain drain’ perception to the current awareness of correlating mobility with skilling and the potential to contribute to the labour market. The ministries of human resource development and external affairs, among others, are encouraging and facilitating student mobility from India through scholarships and related support services.

India, too is bracing to emerge as a destination of study for international students. While the draft 2019 New Education Policy stresses improving study-abroad capacity at Indian institutions as an integral component of internationalization of Indian campuses, the latest Open Doors report indicates a 15% drop in the number of US students in India. We are optimistic the Indian government’s recent initiatives to internationalize home-grown institutions will ignite the interest of US students and faculty to pursue India-specific studies.

The Fulbright Program, which recently completed 70 years in India, has been an important initiative between the two counties not only to strengthen bilateral ties but also provide an impetus to two-way mobility. By providing a critical plank to support educational exchange, it has helped foster people-to-people connect over a diverse range of subjects, including the sciences, arts, food, culture, climate change and politics. Whether it is a veteran American flautist working with his Indian host to popularize the bansuri in the West, or a young Indian postdoctoral researcher collaborating with his American mentor to innovate solar energy technologies, the Fulbright Program chronicles impressive growth stories of Indian and American students and scholars who have made significant contributions to important issues relevant for both countries.

The most notable result of the educational and cultural exchange is the development of a vibrant network of citizen ambassadors who are constantly engaged in building mutual trust and understanding. In justifying the relevance of educational exchanges from the standpoint of future world peace and order, the late US senator J. William Fulbright had endorsed it as the “most important and potentially rewarding of our foreign-policy activities".

Diya Dutt is deputy director at United States India Education Foundation.

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