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Varsity Days

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April 2005
Varsity Days

College, the springboard to life, is an arena where desi students find themselves quite at home. Despite the heady rush of newfound independence, and curveballs in the form of drugs, dating and more, the typical desi student not only comes out unscathed, but also empowered to take on life?

By: DEEPA AGARWAL

Meet the college gang. Or you might choose to call them the brat pack. Whichever way you address them, they tend to be a breed apart. Neither kids nor adults; out of school but not a part of the workforce, they are often misunderstood and rarely recognized for what they do.

Most people perceive college life as synonymous with partying, thanks to recent cult comedies like American Pie and even our own diaspora films such as "Where's the Party, Yaar?" But there's more to being in college than the media-driven stereotype of college students as alcohol-consuming, irresponsible brats. No kidding, college is not just about dating, dancing, caffeine addiction, pizzas, drugs, all-nighters and torn blue jeans!

"Being in college has been an invaluable experience. College, for me, has essentially meant growing up. I have become my own person. I have discovered myself and realized what I want to do with my life," says Gagan Grover, a senior at Emory University, as she reflects on her life, sitting outside a local Starbucks on Spring Street.

Abhishek Shah, a junior studying Chemical Engineering at Georgia Tech, asserts, "I had never done any laundry or cooking before I moved to the U.S. I didn't know how to pay taxes and had never handled any finances. The transition was very tough, but I am a better person for it and the independence is exhilarating."

"I love college because it feels so much closer to real life. I like the freedom it gives me to choose my own career path," declares Sarika Gupta, an Accounting undergrad at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Sighs Kishen Sahani* (name changed), a student at Georgia State University, "The tough realities of life come crashing in when you get to college. Whether it's working illegally at less than the minimum wage or saving some extra dough, or hunting for assistantships at school, it's never easy."

Those of us who have been there are aware of the frenzy that college life is all about. We get thrown into it knowing little, but we end up learning a lot along the way. While learning to stay, look, and talk "cool," we study, socialize, work, manage our own time, cope with staying away from home and parents, learn to live with strangers, and run our own finances... and all at the very same time! Boy, that's one tall order!

Add to the mix being Indian-American, or having come fresh from India, and you further complicate things. Living amidst two disparate cultures ? especially when it comes to issues such as dating, drinking and clubbing ? is not an easy task!

"Indian college students are especially misunderstood because of the conservative nature of Indian society," explains Gagan. "If an Indian student is seen at a club, it is looked down upon [in much of our community]. And that's why most Indian students hide or lie to their parents when they go clubbing, when, in fact, this is exactly how the social scene works in the U.S. In fact, Emory's Indian Cultural Exchange (ICE) takes freshman-year students to clubs so that they can bond and have fun together."

So, exactly how does the social scene work in American colleges today? Have things really changed that much? Are the experiences of American-born kids all that different from those of students coming from India?

Then and now: less integration?

Dr. Jayant Kale, Professor of Global Financial Markets at Georgia State University's J. Mack Robinson College of Business, reminisces about the time, almost twenty-four years ago, when there wasn't much of an Indian support system for students fresh off the boat. He came to the United States in August 1981 for his Ph.D. in International Business at the University of Texas, Dallas.

"When I came here, there wasn't an organized network of Indians who could help new students integrate. The international office at my school, along with the local church, assigned me to an American host family. The host family proved to be immensely helpful as it helped me to settle down and was always there to answer questions. That was about all we had, though some isolated Indian professors and students also did try to help out," reveals Dr. Kale.

Fast forward to 2002 and compare that to the experience of Abhishek Shah, President of the India Club at Georgia Tech, who moved to Atlanta from Mumbai in the fall of 2002. "The India Club undeniably played a significant role in helping me feel at home. It provided a forum where I could meet and mingle with fellow Indians. It helped me find friends, especially when I was new to the school and country. In addition, the India Club also does airport pickups and arranges temporary accommodation for new students."

Harshavardhan Chevuru got transferred to Georgia State University (GSU) in December 2004, after spending a semester at University of Missouri, Kansas City. Enrolled in a Masters' program in Computer Science, Harsh (as he is called by his friends) took the help of the Indian Student Association at GSU to find an apartment that he could share with like-minded students. "The first thing I did when I knew that I was getting transferred to GSU was to get in touch with the student association," says Harsh.

"Not only do such associations help new students settle, but they also organize several campus activities and events throughout the year. While the various parties ? such as Diwali, Holi and Garba ? might help Indian students to hold on to their cultural roots, they also serve to promote awareness of Indian culture on campus."

Arti Agarwal, a Management graduate from Georgia Tech, is reminded of international cultural shows, which invariably draw huge numbers of American students. "Most American students come to these shows to get a better understanding of your culture," she claims.

Thanks to all this, an Indian student today not only has a turn-key solidarity network, but also, to their benefit, non-Indian students are more aware of where they are coming from as regards to ethnicity.

With so much going on for Indian students today, one may tend to feel sorry for those of yester-years who had none of these environs or facilities to fall back on. Though, as with many things in life, advantages and disadvantages are often the two sides of the same coin. According to Dr. Kale, the lack of Indian student associations and a strong Indian network in the 1980s was actually a boon in disguise. Elaborating, he says, "From what I have seen, Indian students, nowadays, integrate a lot less into the local American culture. Today you can live in Atlanta without having to interact with Americans. When I was in college, though, we did not have that choice. Some of my good friends from college are American, German and New Zealanders. We drove on the weekends to the beach, windsurfed and played tennis. But the students today take the path of least resistance and, for the most part, stay only with other Indians."

Dr. Beheruz Sethna, President of the University of West Georgia, concurs, while adding, "There's nothing wrong with staying with other Indians. What's wrong is staying only with Indians, because then you cannot gain from the local culture."

However, for most Indian college students fresh off the boat, understanding and integrating into the American culture is a daunting task. On the other hand the motivation to do so is subdued by the fact that there are many other Indians to interact with. Says Abhishek, "Most of my friends are either American-born Indians or those that have come from India. It's not that I don't interact with American students. I study with them, hang out with them, go for coffee with them and also go clubbing with them." Yet, according to him, it is not the most natural for many like him who have come from India to strike a "jigri dosti" (close friendship) with an American.

The comfort zone can often be so enticing that Harsh, who has been in the country for the last 8 months, admits that there are days when he can get by without even speaking English. "The friends I live with are mostly from Hyderabad and I spend most of my time with them."

Indeed, the integration issue is not just limited to Indian/non-Indian students, but there is also this whole FOB (Fresh off the boat) versus ABCD dynamic. (The acronym originally stood for the derogatory description, "American Born Confused Desi". Now, however, ABCD is often used as a neutral slang to describe those Indians who are born and/or raised here).

Abhishek Shah, a FOB says, "It definitely wasn't easy mingling with the Indian-American students at first. When I came here as a freshmen, I would only chill with those students who, like me, had come from India. However, I soon realized that the problem lay more with me than them."

Minni Pathak, an Indian-American Communication senior at Kennesaw State University talks about the segregation between the Indian-American students and those who come from India. "There are times when local born students fail to recognize the challenges of those who come from India. It's definitely tough to be a student in a new country and to have no family support. Most Indian students are also very ambitious because they come here with such high expectations. That's why most of them tend to spend time in research labs than with friends."

Shemoni Sheth, an acclaimed Indian classical dancer who was born and raised here, is an active member of the student body at Georgia Tech. According to her, "In the past, there used to be a greater divide between these two groups. Earlier, the local born were indeed confused, because they were not quite engaged with our native culture. But now our involvement in our culture has turned a whole new leaf. There are so many major cultural programs throughout the year that are a result of the combined efforts of what you refer to as FOBs and ABCDs."

She continues, "Of course there is still somewhat of a divide, but that has more to do with the comfort zones of the familiar rather than an exclusionary intention or effort from either side. The fact that we, Indian-Americans, have embraced our traditional culture while the FOBs often come in having already embraced the Western culture results in a good common ground for us."

New-found independence

If independence is one of the most appealing aspects of college life for any student, it is much more so for desi ones ? who usually, if not always, come from relatively conservative and restrictive homes. To boot, many of them are oceans away from home.

Even the local resident students prefer to be away from home ? suburbs apart, if not oceans apart. As it turns out, the overwhelming majority of college students live on or around the campus. In fact, most students claim that living in a dorm or campus apartment is quintessential to their college experience.

"Living on campus gives you a completely different perspective. It's a different lifestyle ? different environment. You don't have to think about driving back at 2 o'clock in the morning if you are studying," says Snehal Patel, an Emory University undergrad, majoring in Business. Smiling impishly, he further adds, "Obviously, it is about having fun, too. You don't want to go back home at 4 o'clock in the morning, when you have been partying late on Friday night."

With living on campus comes freedom, independence and, ironically, responsibility; the freedom to experiment and finally do the things that you have always wanted to do; the pleasure of making independent decisions and the responsibility of keeping yourself in check!

Echoing similar thoughts, Gagan says, "The best thing about living on campus is the independence that comes with it. There's nobody watching over you. There's nobody telling you what to do every single second of the day. You are doing your own thing and managing your own time," she adds.

However, "dorming" is not without its aches and pains! The hardest part about it is finding the right room-mate. In fact, "incompatible room-mate" was one of the reasons Sarika Gupta chose to commute to University of Georgia from Duluth. "It's really not that bad a commute," says Sarika. "I have classes twice a week and have to drive over to school only on those two days. I lived in a dorm for one semester but didn't really enjoy it. I missed home, my parents, and all my high-school friends. And to top it, my room-mate was extremely difficult."

Also, living in a dorm/on-campus can be an expensive affair for students coming from India. Most students who come from India, instead, share private apartments with friends.

Ravi Krishna Ravula, a Master's student at Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business, lives in a three-bedroom apartment along with his five friends. "Sharing an apartment works out to be much cheaper than living on campus. It is also much easier because you are living with friends and there's a basic level of understanding amongst us," explains Ravi.

Undoubtedly, the one thing that college students have aplenty is?time. "You have so much more time when you are in college that you have to learn to manage it well. At Emory, for example, you are taking, on an average, four to five classes and you have plenty of time to do a lot of other activities," affirms Snehal. "I love to get involved in extracurricular activities. I was formerly the President and am currently on the board of directors of the United Indian Student Alliance (UISA). The UISA is an umbrella organization that brings together independent Indian Student Associations in Georgia and organizes activities such as the Diwali show for students from all schools." He adds, "I am also a member of Karma, the Bhangra team at Emory. Both of these activities take up a good amount of my time."

But once the dorm and room-mate issues are sorted, the quizzes handed in, the papers submitted, extracurricular activities dealt with, and the shut-eye time taken care of, most students start getting a feel for the hip places to hang out at. And, undoubtedly, hanging out with friends is a favorite way for college students to spend their time.

Talking, gossiping and hanging out are truly some of the most popular activities on college campuses. Most college students flock to their favorite hangouts to relax, and?indeed, talk some more! Girlfriends, boyfriends, classes, movies, music and current events figure high on the conversation list. But frankly anything of interest can become a hot topic of discussion. And while for some students this favorite hangout could be the local Starbucks or a cyber caf�, for most others it is simply their friend's room.

"Most times, we generally chill in the room," says Abhishek. "Contrary to popular notion, college life is not always about going off campus, because not everyone has a car. So you tend to chill and find things to do at home," he says. "The hookah (water-pipe) is quite hip nowadays. We use the hookah a lot when we are chilling in our room. It's not really like smoking, because it has very small proportion of nicotine and hardly any tar and chemicals in it. The flavored mixture or shishah is essentially tobacco combined with fruit and molasses or honey. In fact, it's called nakli (fake) tobacco in India. It's for ages 12 and over, so definitely it's safe. When I came here two years ago, the hookah wasn't that big. But it is very "in" and trendy in Mumbai and I got one when I went back home over the break."

Apart from "chilling" with your friends, college life is generously peppered with late-night diversions. Of these, clubbing/partying seems to be the prominent one.

"For the last couple of months we have shifted our focus from clubbing to bowling. But yes, we do love to go clubbing and dancing over the weekends," admits Ravi. With a sheepish smile, he adds, "We avoid techno music because, frankly, we cannot dance to it. My friends and I prefer clubs like Club Europe that play more of international music. We also like going out to eat and watching plenty of movies."

Rishi Chhabra*, an undergraduate student, says, "I go to clubs with my friends on most weekends. But other than that, most Indian college parties too end up at clubs. Clubbing and drinking really go hand in hand and most students do get drunk, especially so if the drinks are cheap. In fact, many party organizers pay off bouncers at clubs so that even the 18 and above crowd can come to the club and drink. Most kids, I admit, when they go clubbing have trouble walking out of the door by the end of the night. But usually, they are very responsible and always have a designated driver in their group."

"My friends and I usually go clubbing once a month," states Gagan. "I really go there for the social scene and to catch up with friends. But a lot of people go there simply to get drunk. It is also a known fact that most students go to a club to meet members of the opposite sex. A club is the most common place for getting asked out or simply getting a phone number."

And that brings us to the issue of dating. Nowadays, it is considered weird if you choose not to date in college and, needless to say, most students feel the pressure. Many begin their search for "Mr. or Miss Right" once they get into college and dating is the only way to do that. Nevertheless, as some of us know, the process of finding "Mr. or Miss Right" can be a hell of a long one!

"Yes, I felt the pressure to date," confesses Jhanvi Vasudevan*, a college senior. "But I was scared?scared of my parents, the Indian society, my reputation. I date because I would like to have a "love marriage," as it's known in Indian circles. I am not interested in having someone arrange my marriage. However, since I will be graduating soon, I don't want to date someone who doesn't have the long term potential," she admits.

For many others, though, long term potential of a date is really of no concern at this point. Says Harsh, "Right now, I am really not looking for someone to marry. Most of my friends have girlfriends and there are times when I feel that it's high time I had one too. What I want is to be with someone nice and then take it from there."

"I guess the pressure is felt more from an American perspective," muses Minni Pathak, a Communications senior at Kennesaw State University. "It's mostly my white/black friends who would wonder why I wasn't dating and if I would get into an arranged match. Most Indian girls and boys are perfectly fine with the idea that you might have not dated, because they know that dating is really not part of our culture."

Dodging the pitfalls

Almost all parents worry about their children when they leave home for college, and more so Indian parents. Reckless enthusiasm, academic irresponsibility, late night binges and drug experimentation are all very genuine concerns that most parents have. And, one might add, not without reason.

Experimenting with drugs, especially, is a big thing on college campuses.

"Drugs are common on college campuses," notes Aseem Misra*. "Marijuana or what is commonly called weed is very cheaply available. I wanted to try it once just to see what it's like because I don't want to look back at life and regret not having tried things out. Also, college is the only time that I could have done this. I am responsible only to myself and don't have a reputation to live up to. Don't think I could do this a few years down the line, when I may have more responsibilities."

It seems common for freshmen students to go a little berserk their first year away from home and parental supervision. Life couldn't be better. You left home in search of the world and the world is what you have at your feet. There's no one telling you how to live your life. You can come in and go out whenever you want and you are accountable to no one but yourself. And while many breeze through college with absolute ease, there are others who have a tough time handling all the freedom and they do get into trouble.

Dr. Beheruz Sethna relates an instance of a college girl who hit somebody while driving under influence. "I am totally in favor of my students having fun and enjoying themselves. But it is hard for me to believe that experimenting with drugs and boozing is ?fun.' People have died from experimenting with drugs. I know the probability is small, but if the price that my students will have to pay for such experimenting is so high, then I don't want them to go there."

He adds, "A week ago, our students had a day-long marathon ? the Miracle Marathon. They did a number of fun activities, such as dancing, singing, and games. They raised $35,000 for a children's hospital in Atlanta. And they were having a phenomenal time! I deny the supposition that you need alcohol or drugs to have fun and be cool! ?Fun' is hardly supposed to cost anyone their life or career, right?"

Also, as Dr. Sethna points out, "a bulk of violent crimes takes place under the influence of alcohol. There is also a huge correlation between getting intoxicated and getting into sexual problems." Summing up, he says, "Sadly, just because drugs are more easily available today, kids think it's all right to do them."

Fortunately, as per Dr. Sethna, "While there are those students who come to college simply to chill and have a good time, I would say that for the most part, students are very responsible. They are also known to do great work. I know of undergraduates who spend time with senior citizens and raise money for children's hospitals. They have their fun, but at the same time are responsible individuals."

Many students and parents might agree with Dr. Sethna. Ruhi Sharma, an Anthropology major, who now teaches in upstate New York certainly seems similarly upbeat about desi students in particular: "Yes, there are perils at college, but my observation has been that we Indians are programmed in favor of responsibility and excellence. Whether it is our traditional values, family values, or a high regard for academics, or a bit of it all, we are less likely to goof up or drop out. And it's not just academics; Indian students are also quite involved in extracurricular cultural and social activities. All in all, college suits us quite well."


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