GOAL POST A melting pot of diverse cultures, Harvard University provides an opportunity to bring out the globizen in you.
It was on a visit to MIT, Boston, for my brother’s graduation ceremony that my family and I visited Harvard. I was then in the ninth grade. The university, having impressed upon us its grandeur through magnificent red-brick buildings, hardly ever figured in our discussions until it was time for me to decide where I wanted to attend college. Just having entered the eleventh grade, I had already plunged into preparing for IIT when I thought of taking the SAT exam as well. Attending a college in the United States was, to me, a viable second option. After two years of SAT and IIT going hand-in-hand, I got admitted to Harvard, that too with a full scholarship. It seemed like my decision had been made for me.
Widening my horizon
A complicated application process and a 14-hour-long journey are not the only obstacles for an Indian student who wants to study in the United States. My first cultural shock came when Juan, a friend of mine, introduced me to his boyfriend Andio. Having never been confronted with homosexuality before, I could barely manage to suppress an embarrassed giggle as I wished Andio and fled the conversation. My transition to a society which expected unconditional equality for all races, nationalities, and sexualities was a troubled process to say the least.
Now, looking back on my first days at Harvard, I find it difficult to recall the number of times we discussed the concept of equality during the opening days at Harvard. The first of the many discussions to come was called “Community Conversations.” Members of each hostel, among which were Asian, Indian, white American, black American, Hawaiian, latino, and bi-racial students, sat together and talked about the discrimination they had faced in their lives. Eddy, a friend of mine who is Asian, talked about his classmates mocking him for his small eyes. D’Joy talked about being lonely as the only black girl in an honors class. Juan confessed to having been ostracized by family and friends for “coming out of the closet,” for being gay. These confessions were important. They made each student sitting there aware of the possibility of being judged and being discriminated against. Such conversations were happening in each of the 17 hostels on campus and, simultaneously, were knitting together a community which would stand for equality come what may.
Freedom of choice
Being politically correct is only one of the several changes that a desi student is confronted with on a firang campus. Since Harvard is a liberal arts college, the students are given freedom to choose four or five courses each semester out of the hundreds that are offered. This trend is in confirmation with the American schooling system in which high school students don’t have to pursue a single ‘stream’ like we do in India, but can concentrate only on those subjects that interest them. It took me a year to catch up with this unfamiliar freedom of choice and, when I did, I found it rewarding and fulfilling.
In the first semester itself, I was studying Mathematics, English, Indian History, and Economics. A similar sense of freedom exists inside the classroom as well in which professors and students learn in an open and interactive setting. It is a must to respect the opinion of the other and care is taken to ensure that no discussion turns ugly. Even though attendance is not mandatory, all students attend class without fail. All courses are administered independently and with each having its own weakly assignments, they ensure semester-long hard work for the students.
All the studying is punctuated by several parties that Harvard hosts on its grounds. On Halloween, Annenberg, the dining hall, was turned into a giant horror house and had a dance a party. In the spring, there was a spring carnival full of barbecues, concerts, and swings attached to large trees. The breadth and depth of the involvement of the university in building the student experience is exemplary. If fun and frolic is not enough to de-stress a student, she can visit any of the three advisers that the university assigns to each student. A senior student, a dean, and a warden work closely with each other to ensure that each student finds them easily accessible and has all the resources she might want to make her college experience fruitful and happy.
However, despite all the support, I often felt lonely on the campus. The Americans have a strict concept of “privacy” and do not appreciate constant company. My brother’s Indian college experience was vastly different; he would tell me about the several hours that his friends would spend in each other’s rooms. When I reached college, I would find it disheartening to be rejected when I would ask a friend to go with me to buy something. Most, if not all, students there are financially independent from their parents and have learnt to lead an individual’s life. It takes time and heart to get used to this abject independence.
A salad bowl
Having finished a year at a university in a foreign country, I realise what helped me the most was my realisation that I was now a part of a heterogeneous society. American campuses are beautiful melting pots of diversity but this beauty is maintained only when every student is willing to contribute to it. Being welcoming and appreciating of differences in the people can go a long way in establishing long lasting friendships. You should be ready to stead the fine line between maintaining your identity as an Indian and also as a global citizen. When this receptivity to differences develops, you’ll find the American student experience to be a fantastic one.
Lastly, what is the best remedy for loneliness, you ask? Well, as they say, when in Rome, use Skype.