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Updated: July 17, 2012 13:15 IST

The Harvard experience

Namrata Narain
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Namrata Narain. Photo: Special Arrangement
Namrata Narain. Photo: Special Arrangement

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.

Cultural activities

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.

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Notes about DeutschlandJanuary 14, 2013

It was a nice read...But to get into a college of this stature u'r schooling plays the pivotal role.

from:  Arindam
Posted on: Jul 19, 2012 at 12:49 IST

Try this -

for the next week be constantly in the company of your friends but do
not talk, not even by sign language.

The next week, be alone and talk to yourself.

When you learn the difference between talking and doing see which you
like better.

from:  Albert
Posted on: Jul 19, 2012 at 12:21 IST

Thats so true. Loneliness is one of the greatest problems I faced when I did my studies at Carnegie Mellon. Despite all the support and people around me, I used to feel very lonely. I guess I am doing better now after being around here for a couple of years.

from:  Nishanth
Posted on: Jul 18, 2012 at 20:13 IST

Very objective write-up on the open, but sometimes lonely environment of a top American
University. Please keep writing every semester summarizing your experience on and off
the campus for the next three years. At the end, it may even be a good idea to write a
small booklet on the experience of a lifetime at the sacred feet of SARASWATHI, the
modern version of the Godess of learning and knowledge that Harvard has become.

from:  N R Mantena
Posted on: Jul 18, 2012 at 18:26 IST

Wonderful Article Namrata! I was in your shoes when I came to US in 2001 to get my Masters degree. I had very similar experiences like yours.

from:  Neeraja Rangisetty
Posted on: Jul 17, 2012 at 22:22 IST

Good and interesting article. It gave me an insight to how an American university functions. Please continue to write as you complete various stages. This info will be useful to many youngsters who may be thinking of prusuing foreign education.

from:  Ayyappa
Posted on: Jul 17, 2012 at 11:05 IST
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