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Coast to coast

Going abroad to pursue higher studies is something that many students dream about. However, before that turns into a reality, students should mull the various aspects of adjusting to a new environment. Nitin Sreedhar scans the North American continent – from California to Pennsylvania – to capture experiences and advice from two Indians who are on their way to realising their dream

education Updated: Jun 30, 2010 09:19 IST

Elaisha Nandrajog, who graduated from the Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California in May, 2010 talked about her experience in college. Moving from India to the US was not that difficult, she said, “Living in a metropolis like Delhi made the transition to college life in the US considerably easier. Urban life in India sets one up for college life in the US; it tends to minimise the “culture shock. And therefore I adapted pretty well.”

Nandrajog did a dual major in international relations and religious studies.

“The biggest difference in the approach to education is the emphasis placed on routine work. Examinations hold little weight; discussion, collaborative work, and research papers are the core criteria for assessment. Congruently, educators in the US accord emphasis to writing and reading. The idea is to learn a lot about a lot, and learn it really fast. Professors encourage writing that is analytical, cogent, and concise,” she says.

Accommodation is usually a delight. “The dorms were my home away from home. It is a great way to bond with seniors, hang out and make new friends. Resident assistants in each dorm act as student mentors; their presence is a valuable support base to students,” says Nandrjog.

She was particularly delighted with the joviality of campus life, “Campus life is a lot of fun. Evenings are always busy, and students participate in co-curricular activities that are both allied to and independent of mainstream academics. A lot of regional associations, like the Indian associations, keep you in sync with the cultural dimensions back home.”

Asked if there was any specific advice for aspirants, she said, “Studying in foreign institutions allows ample opportunities for fun and travel, but the curriculum is intensive and requires a focused and dedicated student. Playing the balancing act is of the essence because both professors and peers regard a ‘work hard and play hard’ attitude as a mark of a good student.”

Across the continent, in Pennsylvania, Pragya Krishna, has had to put in a lot of effort to adjust to the environment at Bryn Mawr College. Food, rather the amazing variety of it, almost proved to be her undoing. This because not many American food items that she had access to made for healthy choices.

“In the majority of cases, when people apply to universities abroad, there is an implied idea that they are familiar with the culture of the country they are applying to. (However,) moving to the US was a complete change. There was a lot more freedom. Food was one of the most fundamental changes - it’s so easy to forget about being healthy and looking after yourself when you have such a wide variety of pizzas, pastas, desserts, etc. available every single day. Add to that the fact that the only cooking possible in my dorm is with a microwave, and it’s almost like you have to hunt for healthy food options,” Krishna says.

Currently doing her BA with a math major, set to graduate in 2013, Krishna, used to the Indian system where assignments are considered secondary and exams accorded the greatest weightage, had to adjust to an entirely different way of studying.

“The education system change definitely took time getting used to. Keeping up with the way assignments are structured in the US, figuring out who to talk to or turn to for help with them, meeting daily deadlines that affected the final grades, all made the work a little more difficult than it was for American students. You get used to it after a while, though.”

However, living conditions were a relief since American dormitories, though similar to the ones at home, usually have better facilities.

“The hostel life is very similar to that in India. From what I’ve observed though, American dorms provide more facilities than Indian dorms do. For instance, all dorms at my college are provided with wireless Internet. Dorms vary with colleges, so all experiences can be different. In my case, because my college fosters such a strong sense of community, there was a lot of dorm pride and sisterhood, and many school nights are spent in the common room with all the members of the floor, doing homework, ordering food in, etc.”

While all this sounds great, it is still all about the choices one makes. One must select a college with care so that the experience is more attuned to learning.

“First, the application process involves a lot of soul-searching, so take full advantage of the opportunity and really figure out which set of colleges will suit you best before you apply. Research universities, state schools and liberal arts colleges are an extremely different experiences, so research your colleges, and try to find out as much about them as you can. Alumni are a GREAT source to go to,” says Krishna.

Though a lot of applicants might feel that some fibbing is acceptable, Krishna cautions against it.

“Be honest in your application, and put in everything you’ve ever done, no matter how small. Teacher recommendations are VERY important, so make sure they’re stellar. Work hard, keeping a hold on your performance in school at the same time, and you’re all set,” Krishna adds.