Several students from Hyderabad were sweating over their shattered American dream at a time the city was celebrating the visit of its prodigal son and the most prominent Telugu techie in the US, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Unlike Nadella — who was at his hometown on Monday — and his compatriots in the 1980s, these students were barred from entering the US. Some were not even allowed to board their flight.
“I entered the airport at seven for a flight at 10pm. Still the airlines marked me as ‘no show’. No reason was given,” says an anguished Praveen Chaithanya who has a student visa issued by the US consulate.
The 24-year-old engineering graduate from Karimnagar in Telangana is part of a growing breed of jobless techies pinning their hopes on a master’s degree from a US institution to build a career.
Trouble began on December 19 when 14 students who flew with Air India to San Francisco to take Spring Semester 2016 admission at two California universities were sent back home. Next night, 19 more students booked on an Air India flight to San Francisco were stopped by the airline at the Hyderabad airport.
Air India referred to a communication from US authorities stating the two universities — Northwestern Polytechnic and Silicon Valley — where these students had applied for admission were under scrutiny.
On December 22, private carrier Etihad stopped another set of students from boarding its US flight.
Feeling duped and humiliated, Chaithanya and the other students demanded the Indian government to take up the matter with the US. “I submitted genuine certificates and also got a loan approved. I was all set for a new life in the US. But at the end of the day, I faced a big insult,” he says.
The controversy puts the focus on the Telugu fascination for America. What was a trickle when Nadella went to the US in 1988 for his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, after graduating in engineering from Manipal, is now a deluge.
Telugus outnumber students of any other region from India in many US educational institutions, especially in engineering and computer science. At universities such as the Northwestern Polytechnic in Fremont, California, which is now under a cloud, Telugus are said to constitute about 60% of students while the most heard language on the campus is a distinctive Andhra and Telangana accent.
“I have opted for NPU as some of my friends are already studying here and also because a good GRE score is not a must for a seat. The two-year course costs about Rs 20 lakh only,” a Telugu student of NPU says.
The trend to take a flight to the US picked up pace in late 1990s after the then Chandrababu Naidu government allowed mushrooming of the engineering colleges in the state. There are about 500 such colleges in the two states now — almost all of them affiliated to Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University.
The glut of graduates soon shrunk job opportunities at home while stories of “Non-Resident Telugus” minting dollars, peer pressure and parental desire to see their wards acquiring the NRI tag contributed to this drift that US education consultants — a thriving industry in Hyderabad — call herd behaviour.
“Entering an engineering college was a big accomplishment two decades ago but the spurt in numbers brought down standards. Graduates face difficulty in getting jobs and those who can afford, go abroad to gain some skills, learn work culture and return with the US tag,” says GSN Raju, the vice-chancellor of Andhra University, Visakhapatnam.
At every engineering college in and around Hyderabad as well as cities such as Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam and Warangal, almost every student aspires to go for higher studies in the US and land a handsome job in a multinational tech firm.
“It was my desire to do my master’s in the US as it would ensure a good career,” says 25-year-old Machineni Kiran Kranthi, who did his BTech, from a private engineering college in Hyderabad and joined NPU in California for his MS in 2014.
Some work hard and gain scholarships in prestigious US universities but there are others who cut corners to join institutions that claim no enviable academic reputation and lower the bar for entry. Therein lie the problem.
“There are over 4,000 institutes in the 50 states offering seats to international students. And yes, some of these universities could be running with income-generation as priority,” says GV Madhav, who runs usstudent.in, an education consultancy at Ameerpet in Hyderabad.
NPU and Silicon Valley officials deny the reports, rumours that their institutes were blacklisted for fraud. “We have learned that a small percentage of international students are being sent back to India but only those that fail their immigration interviews, for example, by communicating that they are coming to the US to work illegally or are unable to show sufficient identification or financial support. In no situation have we seen specific questions directed about NPU. Do not let the media fool you into believing that their deportation is an NPU issue,” says a statement from Peter Hsieh, president of NPU.
But the US has a record of sham universities. In 2011, hundreds of Telugu students at Tri-Valley University in California had to endure hardship after authorities closed the institute for fraudulent visa documentation and showing full attendance for students who were actually working away from the campus.
“Unfortunately, some Telugu students have earned the reputation of reaching the US by hook or crook. Over time, US authorities have figured out the ways and tools … email, social media scrutiny and thorough questioning to detect such methods,” says Kiran Kalluri, a senior IT professional working with a global IT giant.
Another IT professional working in Kansas, Vinil Nuggu, pointed to a rule that permits students to work in the US for more than two years after completing their studies. “The US attraction in several cases is for jobs as a master’s degree is an easy channel to gain work here than an H1B visa.”
The American dream has spawned hundreds of educational consultancies in Hyderabad and other cities, such as Guntur and Visakhapatnam, to help students identify a suitable university and help with the paperwork. Some agents are extra resourceful and make good money by providing false certificates, parking funds in student bank accounts to establish financial strength besides writing their “statement of purpose”.
About 1,000 education consultancies and agents operate, sometimes charging Rs 3,000 to Rs 6,000 from each student. But they are primarily in the business for an attractive cut of $250 to $300 from a US university for sending a student there, an agent says.
Agents say about a dozen students are deported every year when their false documents or intention to work are detected. In some cases, US officials become suspicious because students become tense and fumble for an answer when they are questioned.
But the reason for the sudden deportation or stopping of a large number of Indian students this time is yet unclear. US officials simply stated that they were still collecting facts.
In this context, senior Telugu students have one advice: be genuine and be prepared to answer tough questions from the US immigration officials.