I had arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina, from India less than forty-eight hours ago, travelling across two oceans and 8,500 miles. I had yet to find a place to live but the semester had begun and it was time for my first graduate class: Community Psychology taught by Dr Bishop. The class was called a seminar, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I felt excited yet nervous.
Everything these past few months – the tests, the applications, the shopping, and the visa – had led up to this day, this moment. My US student visa felt like a ticket to a gilded future: American campuses, whose glossy brochures promised colonnaded buildings, sprawling green lawns, and smiling faces with high ponytails and sparkling blue eyes, soaking up the sun while expanding their minds. These were the American McMonuments of Higher Education, and I was now attending one myself.
There were eight of us clustered around the table, all of whom had just begun the graduate programme. There was a sense of anticipation in the air, lined yellow notepads neatly laid out and pens poised. How I had always longed for those yellow legal pads. Vikram had brought back a few on his first visit back from the US, and all his long letters were written to me on those pages. I would run my hand over them, their smooth texture an invitation to write, a fresh smell emanating from them that I was beginning to associate with everything American.
And now here I was, in this American classroom, with my American classmates, and with my very own American pad before me.
Dr Bishop entered the room and nodded at us with an awkward smile. He took a seat at the head of the table and then asked each of us to introduce ourselves. I was not used to this business of talking about oneself. Writing the personal essay had been hard enough, but here it was again, this idea of holding forth about oneself in a detached and objective manner, to “get on one’s soapbox,” as Americans called it. I was having to speak up in ways I never had to before.
In India, our teachers would take attendance, checking off our names on a list. Beyond that, they rarely asked why we were there or what we hoped to get out of the class. We were expected to be quiet, especially if we were women. To ask questions would be to disrupt the flow of the class and to question the authority of the teacher.
We all began to go around the table, one by one, introducing ourselves.
“Hi all, I’m Daniel Helms. I used to run my own company in client relations but thought it would be good to go back to school to expand my learning. Really great to be here with all of you!” Daniel was skinny, with longish wavy hair, and a toothy smile.
“Good morning, I’m Anne Kessler and I’m delighted to be here. I used to work with Microsoft but wanted to go back to school to get a PhD.”
When it was my turn, I felt stumped. How to summarise my college years, or why I was here? Should I tell the truth that I had simply followed Vikram and a relationship? But that didn’t sound as weighty as the aspirations of those sitting around the table. My classmates were brimming with a sense of purpose that I didn’t share.
While on the surface my chosen path seemed clear-cut and deliberate, on the inside it was anything but, for I had never sat down and mapped how each step would ultimately lead to a de- sired outcome. Simply put, I was toeing the line that many Indians had before me: we went through our education in one shot – high school, college, and postgraduate study – with no delay or departure from this linear formula. Going to college was just something everyone did, to improve either their job or marriage prospects.
This was probably why India had an overabundance of aimless and uninspired college graduates, many of them underemployed at Western-style fast-food chains where their English-speaking skills came in handy.
For Indian students, there was no notion of taking a summer off to go abroad, to do an internship, or to backpack through Europe in a modern version of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour where, sitting atop an isolated hilltop, one would perhaps discover one’s true calling. Had I allowed myself the self-indulgence and luxury of “discovering myself,” I might have become an interior designer, an artist, or a journalist, wishful ideas that I’d sacrificed at the altar of practicality and the comfortable predictability of a viable, solid career. Self-exploration is not something that we Indians do, or at least not until we have a few gray hairs and decades’ worth of experience, when the process of introspection is more about the regret for the road not taken rather than the excitement of the journey ahead.
Now, with all eyes on me, I felt the pressure to speak, lest my silence be mistaken for stupidity. It was bad enough that I was the only one who looked different, had a strange name that was constantly being mispronounced, and I sounded different, even to my own ears. But all I could muster for now was, “Hello, I’m Rajika Bhandari, and I’m from India.” For now, my apparent foreignness defined me and confined me.
One thing was becoming clear to me: American classrooms were nothing like those in India. The differences began with something as basic as how each of us sat in class.
It amazed me that American students chomped and slurped their way through classes and occasionally propped their feet up on the furniture. Then there was the custom of referring to professors by their first names. Such casualness seemed to somehow diminish the importance of the education we were there to receive.
American professors taught us as if we were coconspirators, allies in the pursuit of knowledge: they advised, guided, and consulted. My Indian professors, by contrast, had commanded us from the front of the classroom, frowning and glowering, hell-bent on making us master the basics and, in the process, squelching our love for the subject at hand. American students pondered, researched, and critiqued, whereas Indian students like me were used to learning by rote, committing everything to memory but very little to true comprehension.
During my college days in Delhi, I had become used to an academic calendar of seven months of lacklustre performance in class, followed by three months of intense cramming ahead of the final, high-stakes exam. In the last few weeks leading up to the exam, the women’s hostel would be abuzz all night, as we paced up and down, notebooks in hand, fuelled by endless cups of coffee and the odious smoke emitted from mosquito coils as we memorised all the facts and figures that we were supposed to have imbibed over the course of the year.
Yet this approach must have some merits because Indian students – and other Asian students who had been taught at home in similar ways – were widely regarded as being brainy and smart in American institutions. Many succeeded in the classroom, then went on to fuel science and innovation in the US.
What accounted for our success, when it was so clear that how and what we were taught was so different from what we encountered in the US? Were we indeed simply smarter than other students, or were our deeply ingrained habits of diligence and hard work, honed over years of exposure to more traditional education, the ultimate keys to our future success?
Now at North Carolina State University, instead of an overreliance on a single, annual, high-stakes exam, there were pop quizzes in addition to end-of-term exams, which meant that we were assessed frequently on what we were learning. This forced me to learn in a whole new way. For starters, I had to gather and read large amounts of material. Through trial and error, I taught myself to use the library catalogue and databases to do a literature search.
I was too embarrassed to ask my classmates about the difference between an abstract and a full research paper, or about the conventions of constructing a compelling literature review. Years later, while teaching at a university in New York, I would have the opportunity to witness how many international students – particularly those who struggle with English – were suspected of plagiarism, when in fact what students were encountering was a complex mix of language, culture, and ignorance about the process of researching and synthesising information.
As an international student at NCSU, I too did not fully understand plagiarism and what it meant to paraphrase or quote information. It was assumed that I would know all of this before beginning my graduate program. Again, I found myself wondering whether we international students were really prepared to succeed in American classrooms.
Rajika Bhandari is an international higher education expert.
Excerpted with permission from America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, Rajika Bhandari, She Writes Press.