To The Migrant In Us


Many of the graduate students in our universities have come from lands far and near, outside the borders of the US. They adapt to the ways of life here, which are different in ways small and large, and become the engine that keeps our research enterprise galloping along. This article reflects on some challenges they face, some best practices that help them tame the challenges, and a celebration of their supremely important role. These are solely anecdotal based on the many many students I have interacted with and therefore there are no claims to being all encompassing or generalizable [1].

What We Do

I will use the term “we” partly for ease of exposition and partly because I was in this boat several eons ago. What we do is pack our lives in two suitcases, or three if British Airways is running a special, and come to a pristine university campus some 9,000 miles away (your mileage may vary, this was my as-the-crow-flies distance). We find we are really grown up as we navigate the round-abouts of adult life. At the same time we sink our teeth into a new educational system, which surprisingly despite the world becoming flatter, is still very different from the system in India and in many other parts of the world. We find an advisor, or are pre-assigned one, and start doing research, one simple program or one simple graph at a time.

The “Simple Things” That Are Not That Simple

There are many things that are trivially simple in hindsight but were not when we first encountered them. I will mention five that I hear most commonly from among the immigrant students.

  • Food. It is a very different cuisine and while the cuisine of the home country exists in a restaurant (or a few restaurants) in most large campuses, it is nowhere the same. We complained about Mom’s cooking at times and we always complained about the dorm food, but now we would give a lot for either.
  • A sense of connection. For some this is the first foray outside the home country and we are thrown into a mix of people from so many different cultures. The baseline constant cultural hum of America also makes us look for a sense of connection to it.
  • Travel. There isn’t great public transport and till a few assistantship paychecks and a summer of hefty intern paychecks are in the bank, we have to wait interminably for the bus to show up. Folks whizzing by in cars just seems to rub it in.
  • Favorite movies or TV shows. For the Bollywood buffs amongst us, used to sharing the movie-watching experience on large screens, we have to wait for the latest blockbusters to show up on OTT platforms. And favorite TV shows may be even harder to come by.
  • Weather. If you happen to land up in the northern half of the US, come November, you get the chills, literally. And then when it snows, that wait at the bus stop seems even more interminable. Those crisp brochures with joyful scenes of students playing in parks seem like a cruel bait and switch.
Credit: “Immigrants In 1897” by Michael Crawford, New Yorker Cartoons, October 13th, 2014.

How We Learn To Do The “Simple Things” Well

But then we are resilient and adaptive and learn to do these simple things well. And the downright frustrations become mere annoyances, and the mere annoyances disappear.

We realize first the possibility of cooking at home, and then the joy of cooking at home to Mom’s phoned-in recipes. We discover bonding over potlucks at friends’ places. And find that American food has some unheralded delights — casserole, tomato bisque, and avocado toast. And we discover the joys of trying a variety of toppings on pizzas, toppings which you did not have in your home country.

We realize in a few wondrous humanitarian insights that people are more alike than different. And we can all come together and gripe about the mean TA, the demanding advisor, and that golden touch classmate who seems to get everything right seemingly effortlessly. We realize that we have similar dreams, though we dream them in different hues.

We learn to time our activities around bus schedules, we learn who are the helpful seniors with cars, and we learn to save for that first car. Beat up that car may be, but sweet memories it will always carry as it will be our first car.

Regarding the favorite movie, we find out that there is a city two hours drive away (Chicago during my grad school days) which shows the movies starting the same day as back home. And then we grow to love that American drama series and American standup for our TV fix. And we take passionate sides in the debate of Fallon vs. Seth vs. John Oliver vs. Corden.

The weather we never quite get to love. But we invest in a fur jacket that must have been meant for the Inuits. And after a painful slide and fall, in snow shoes. And then it becomes bearable.

And We Live The Dream Happily Ever After

We get into the flow of things. We ace the classes, we get prized internships, and research papers start flowing. We make wonderful friends, some from countries we would not have been able to place on a map till we came here. Some of us find that special friend for life. And a few years later, it feels good that multiple companies small and large start wooing us, months before we are ready to graduate.

And then we graduate and make another transition to an even more adult life. We take myriad career paths, some linear, some more curvy, all picturesque. We occasionally look back at those gilt-edged days in school. Sometime when we are at a football game dressed up in the colors of the local team, and cheering wildly for it, we remember a day when we had gazed befuddled at the game on TV and had wondered what all the fuss was about. And thus, for generations of migrating students, the American dream plays out, one individual at a time.

[1] If you want an expansive and a thoroughly engrossing idea of the Computer Science immigrant experience, take a listen to the podcast by my good friend and Illinois faculty, Indy Gupta, called the “Immigrant Computer Scientists Podcast: An Oral History Project featuring Prominent Computer Scientists”. It is into Season 2 now and beware, you may extend your workout on the treadmill listening to its episodes.

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