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Life in and beyond the Ivy League

education Updated: Jul 28, 2010 09:58 IST
Arjun Seth
Arjun Seth
Hindustan Times
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Last week, we talked about the quality of liberal arts colleges in the US. This week we shall cover Ivy League schools and try to understand what makes them special. As is well-known, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, UPenn, Columbia and Cornell are top-ranked schools, but the reasons that make them so, not so much. The grade and range of their facilities, the professors, the strength of the previous graduating classes and their success rate, job opportunities the university’s students get – all add to the reputation of these schools. To find out more about lives of Indian students at these hyper-selective institutions, I interviewed a few students and compiled their replies.

When asked to describe the student body at Brown University (www.brown.edu), Siddharth Sastri said, “It is relatively laid-back compared to other Ivies, but everyone’s really smart, hard-working and good at what they do. So, that keeps you on your toes without pressuring you.”

The right fit can be confusing, said Sejal Pachisia, a sophomore at Princeton University, New Jersey (www.princeton.edu). “It’s an oversimplification to try and give an entire college a personality. Even if you end up going to a college which supposedly has a competitive atmosphere while you’re not competitive at all, it doesn’t mean you won’t fit in. There are plenty of people who will be just like you. It’s not so essential to try and find a college that “fits” you, because you can find your fit in any college, if you try. It’s not a great idea to try and base your college decision on rumours of what people at that college are like, preconceived notions or what kind of atmosphere it has, because it might not be very accurate and a lot of these opinions are largely generalisations. I learned how intense people in Princeton are – they’re almost too focused and slightly workaholic-ish. But again, that’s a generalisation. So, if you try hard enough you can always find people who aren’t like that at all. I liked how intelligent, funny and engaging they all are, and the number of interesting conversations and debates I got to have.”

Fitting in
Most Ivy League schools host a pre-orientation programme for all international students, which helps them develop a strong bond well before the session starts. When asked about her experience with student diversity, Karina Sengupta from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), PA (www.upenn.edu), said, “Luckily, I don’t feel I’m trapped in any clique at UPenn. You should have the courage to break out of the Indian bubble and make new friends. Don’t abandon or avoid Indians, but do make an effort to meet people from other backgrounds. You’ll be surprised at how much you may have in common with people who seem quite different. Join a sorority, frat, or try something completely different. These are the only years you can experiment with no pressure. You’ll be surprised to discover people and aspects of yourself you never knew existed. “

Describing the residential college system and the special bond South Asian students share at the Yale University (www.yale.edu) campus, Chandrika Srivatav, a junior, said, “Yale has a fantastic system of “Residential Colleges”. Much like we have the four ‘houses’ in schools, Yale has 12 residential colleges and each student is randomly assigned to one of 12 colleges at the beginning of freshman year. For the next four years, students live in suites within the residential college but are free to visit any of the other 11. Each college has its own dining hall, library, late-night snack house and gym, in addition to a dean, who takes care of all the academics-related work for students in the college, and a Master, who looks after their residential and other requirements. This system goes a long way in making Yale more inclusive and homely, and is definitely a bonus. What I also love about Yale is that it has the perfect South Asian population: from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There are enough of us that we can celebrate festivals like Holi, have a bhangra team and find plenty of people to host events with eminent speakers from the subcontinent, but not so many that we remain in our little South Asian cocoon all the time.”

Freedom of choice
Academic requirements at the Ivy League schools vary from school to school. Sastri said, “I chose applied math as my major as it was broadly what I wanted to do when I first joined college. Since Brown has no core courses, I’ve explored a few classes in other fields and still plan to do so. The size of my introductory classes at Brown differed greatly. My first economics class had 500 students while my ‘intro English’ class had 13. I wish that some of my economics classes were smaller. Other than that, I haven’t minded large classes.”

Describing her academic choices at Harvard University (www.harvard.edu), Shambhavi Singh said “I went into freshman year wanting to do chemistry and then flitted around unsure and then took some fabulous concentration requirements and decided on chemistry again. The organic chemistry classes I took at Harvard were the best classes I have ever taken. The teaching within departments is fabulous and even though they were introductory courses, they weren’t big and the teachers were extremely dedicated to (turning) us into chemists. The general education or “core” requirements I have taken have been great classes, too. It all depends on what class you pick, and if you try, you can usually find something that interests you and fulfils requirements. Intro classes do tend to be big and at
Harvard there are some that fit 800 people. Obviously, those are no one’s favourite classes. But if managed well, they can be a great experience.”

“I am an environmental engineering major – a major that, at Yale, has less than 10 students each year” said Srivastava. “As a result I know all my professors individually and have no trouble finding summer research opportunities or internships. My favourite thing about Yale, without a doubt, is the two-week Shopping Period we have at the beginning of each semester. Essentially, students have two weeks during which we can “shop” any class we want, i.e. attend any class offered by any professor for two weeks without registering for it (and with the added liberty of walking out at any point in the lecture) and pick four-to-five classes at the end of the Shopping Period, that you will study for that semester. Most of my friends at other schools have to pick their courses in the previous semester or register online, and basically take classes with barely any idea of whether they will like it or not. I cannot imagine myself doing that. It is this flexibility and atmosphere of experimentation and openness that I love the most about Yale. We are constantly reminded that it’s okay to not know what we want to study and that we should try all kinds of things in the hope of discovering our true passion. I wouldn’t trade this education for anything in the world.”

Pachisia said, “At Princeton, I got a lot of personal attention from some absolutely fabulous teachers. Attending the ‘freshman seminars’ with 12-15 students was great since I liked more class time with the professor and less time just to try and figure out the work outside of the classroom.”

Set right
Setting to rest some myths about the lack of individual attention at UPenn, Sengupta says “I came in knowing I was majoring in economics. I added a maths minor (because) it was convenient and I love maths. The stuff about the lack of attention in mid-sized schools like UPenn isn’t true. I personally prefer classes without exams and with essays/projects as the final assessment. I’ve found that in most of my classes in UPenn, and am happy with that. If you want to go the extra yard (i.e. take a class, love it, and intend on pursuing research in that area), professors are more than happy to fix you up with a mentor in their department.”

Having got offers from several highly selective colleges, Singh chose Harvard for specific reasons. She says, “The setting has most definitely affected my college experience. I mostly assumed that I would be happy in any medium-sized college. However, I realise now how important it is to me that Boston is such a thriving city and there is a public transportation system. It’s great to be in a city with so many opportunities and Boston is very student-friendly.”

Beyond the league
Last week I had lunch with Teevrat Garg, a recent Lafayette College (www.lafayette.edu) graduate, who is now heading to Cornell University (www.cornell.edu) for a PhD in applied economics and management. He too talked about fit versus rankings. “The important question is NOT how high a university/college is ranked”, says Garg. The more important question is “how good is the college/university for me”. Simply put, Harvard isn’t for everyone. At Lafayette, I got the chance to do research with professors and get published – something that is very hard to do at a larger university where the primary focus is often on graduate students. One of the economics class I took was advanced monetary policy, which prepared us for the College Fed Challenge, a competition organised by the US Federal Reserve Bank, where students present their recommendation for monetary policy and then defend it in front of a panel of Federal Reserve economists. The small size of the class made the preparation of each of the six students so strong that Lafayette won the national title defeating Harvard, Northwestern and Rutgers in the final round.”

Final words of caution: don’t consider Ivy League’s status as the key criteria for evaluating schools. Students like Teevrat show us how successful students graduating from non-Ivy League institutions can be. There are several other great schools that have a lot, if not more, to offer. Students at Ivy League schools understand that it is not just reputation of their schools that they are in love with, but the liberal arts education, which they receive at these schools.

The author is an independent college admissions counsellor and can be contacted at arjunseth72@gmail.com

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