Source:  Frank McKenna on Unsplash

While there are many determinants of socioeconomic status in India, education is one of the most common thresholds of segregating one stratum from another, not just pertaining to basic literacy levels but the overall quality of education that one has access to. People who go to the more elite colleges are assumed to be higher up on the metaphoric ladder, so it’s natural to expect students to strive for admission into top-ranked universities. For a segment of the Indian population, said elite higher education transcends national boundaries and entails going abroad to study. Year after year, thousands of students live through the process of applying, getting into, and attending various acclaimed universities outside of India, without fully realizing what they’re signing up for. This article is written as a reflection of my personal international student journey in the US and aims to serve, at the very least, as a relatable memoir for other students who have studied abroad, if not as a reality check for those planning to leave home.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it is important to acknowledge the privilege at play in this article. Not everyone gets the opportunity to go to a different country and study amongst the best and brightest minds or interact with world-class faculty to pursue subjects that they genuinely enjoy. Yes, it definitely is a dream come true. However, in a crisis as extreme as the COVID-19 pandemic, even the sweetest of dreams can end very abruptly. That’s why writing about waking up from this dream is important, for it was a truly rude awakening.

For context, I’m from New Delhi. I was born here, lived here for 18 years, and went to a private school here before moving to the US. After what was a harrowing application season, I got into UC Berkeley, with thousands of other undergrads, way back in 2017. I didn’t know anyone in California, and I definitely didn’t know how to move thousands of kilometers away from home so this was very much a leap of faith, for me and my family. Deciding to dive off the deep end is an effective way to test your survival skills, for you either swim or sink, but what about those who didn’t decide to jump? What if you’re pushed off the cliff’s edge without fully realizing what you’re signing up for?

The Build-Up

College counseling is a fairly lucrative business in India, especially in the Capital. Many eager parents bring their kids to “trained” career counselors to help these teens get into universities abroad, mine included. These counselors don’t just sell their services to their clients, they sell every college, course, and country as a promise: the promise that their child will be better off somewhere far away from here. That the standardized tests, extracurriculars, essays, sleepless nights, and crores of rupees will all be worth it. Sometimes, the true prodigies find scholarships and go to great schools without enduring much financial strain, but the majority of this population is, as mentioned, extremely privileged. However, when these students are thrown into a new environment and expected to excel at all costs, no amount of privilege can come to their rescue. There are unique challenges we face as foreigners, as students, as social beings, and simply as people trying to make it in a brand new place. The problem is that nobody in our echo chamber truly talks about these challenges when we’re applying to these great universities.

Most of our parents, friends, and counselors don’t know what it’s like to leave your home and travel so far away to build a whole new life, simply because they’ve never done it themselves! And to reach out to those who actually have has proved to be quite fruitless in my experience. Most alumni are either too busy to tell you the truth or too proud to admit they actually struggled to get where they are. Even if you happen to find a few who would warn you against picking the highest-ranked universities (assuming you have the caliber to get into them in the first place), you wouldn’t really listen. Take it from me, as someone who went to a nice high school, did well at academics, wanted to make her parents proud, and did pretty much everything right, you wouldn’t listen to anyone telling you to *not* pick the great college abroad.

So that’s how I navigated the whirlwind of applications to eventually go to UC Berkeley, wildly unprepared and naive, but hopeful nevertheless.

The Arrival

It’s crazy to think of how intense culture shock can be for us humans. You can skip one town over and move from an urban city to the outskirts and find a whole new type of people. Or vice versa, you move to an overwhelmingly crowded city from your suburban hometown and discover a whole range of new experiences. There is always a transition involved. Moving even a hundred kilometers away from your area can show you the drastic changes in culture, so imagine how it would feel to move to a whole new country.

The US is massive and every part of the country has its own complex dynamic. Political standing, religious beliefs, gender identity/sexuality, economic background, and a million more nuanced factors collectively affect your time at college because, believe it or not, you’re going to come face-to-face with many communities during your time abroad, and it’ll force you to acknowledge a lot about yourself.

My experience was limited to the West Coast so this account will predominantly focus on the Californian side of the spectrum. That itself disqualifies me from commenting on, say, the prevalent racism in Texan colleges or the hazing in frats on the East Coast. Not to claim that that bad stuff doesn’t happen, just that I’m not the one who should be writing about it. Should one research these things about college culture before picking their university? Yes, definitely! But for this article, the focus will be on Cal and similar top colleges, regarding broader experiences most students could relate to.

Berkeley is far from a “party school.” When I left India, I was an overachieving perfectionist, always scoring in the 99th percentile and outdoing most of my peers. But the thing is, once I got to college, everyone there was an overachiever. In a campus full of A-grade students and prodigies, standing out from the crowd can be a mammoth task, and this definitely isn’t an experience unique to Berkeley. Students in all top-ranked universities across the world can speak to the immense competition they face at college, and that the intensity increases exponentially with every semester. While high-school-Guneesha drowning in admissions essays wouldn’t have believed it, the truth is that once you get into college, it only gets harder.

So suffice it to say that my arrival to this 4-year journey came with its fair share of trouble.

The Academics

I was a freshman (first year) at Berkeley when I had my first nervous breakdown. Berkeley’s academics are stellar, so the bar is already set very high, and being the kind of person I am, I wanted to push myself and achieve my highest potential. So I picked harder classes to fulfill requirements, applied to the most competitive clubs, and even went after a notoriously coveted major: business. At Berkeley, you don’t simply get admitted to the undergraduate business program. Instead, you enter college, persevere for three semesters, and then apply again to get into Haas business school, which I did get into, but by then the damage was done.

It’s one thing to want a high GPA to get a good job after college, but needing to maintain an A-grade in every class to get into business school is a whole different level of stress. The class size at Berkeley is insane, so I was in lecture halls of 1000+ students with a professor who’ll never know my name, trying to consume knowledge faster than I ever had before, worrying that if I mess up, it’ll shatter my dream. This right here is the real college experience in America, and nobody talks about the toll it can take on a student.

I’m not saying every class at every college is the same, there are plenty of smaller private universities where the professor teaches maybe 20 kids each semester and there’s plenty of help available. But at schools like Berkeley, that quality is inaccessible, and since I wasn’t told that beforehand, wrapping my head around it at the moment felt really challenging. I’d sacrificed a lot to be there, to study and learn and be a Golden Bear, yet it felt like every system put in place on that campus was working against me.

Enrolling in classes, acing tests, actually retaining the information I learned in class, all of it felt like a struggle for the longest time. I thought there was something wrong with me when I first started out but then I realized, all students felt this way. Not just international students, but any student trying to do well in the hard classes offered at Cal. What’s worse is that I’d talk to my friends back home in Delhi or in Canada and they wouldn’t be as stressed out about work as I was. It made me wonder, what could’ve been, as I’m sure many fellow students abroad have pondered.

To top it all off, most of the things I was learning in classrooms would never be used in the workplace. So not only was I supposed to excel on the academic front but it was an additional responsibility to go find real, hands-on work experience that I’d actually use after college. Naturally, I began mass-applying for summer internships with various companies, most of whom don’t sponsor international students (even from colleges like Berkeley), and it led me to a whole new realm of anxiety about professional success.

So that’s when I started empathizing with the Ivy dropouts because this college thing was starting to feel like a scam.

The Basics

This section is going to sound incredibly conceited but how do people live alone? Seriously, how do you go from living in a family, in a proper household for years, and then suddenly having nobody around you at all? You need to cook, clean, do your laundry, drive yourself around, and if you can’t drive then walk or take a bus or the metro, how does one suddenly do all these things, all at once?

Most of us Indian students abroad come from incredibly sheltered households. We hire people to clean up after us and chauffeur us about and cook our meals but at college, the domestic staff doesn’t come along. It sounds like a dumb thing to whine about but when you’ve made microwavable ramen four nights in a row, it begins to feel like a real problem. And trust me, there were plenty of nights when dinner choices alternated between Maggi or a protein bar before heading back to the library to pull a caffeinated all-nighter.

To be fair, I did anticipate this one before leaving, but that doesn’t mean I took a crash course in Indian cooking or practiced vacuuming before getting on the flight. Some things in the new environment will naturally be different from the life you’re used to, and you’re forced to learn those on your own, no matter how much you try to avoid it or prep for it. For me, it meant picking between the forty different detergent liquids at the supermarket and learning to pack my suitcase so it wouldn’t be overweight and my stuff wouldn’t break in transit. It took me a lot of trial and error to figure out the icky stuff, like what to do when you find a rat in your room, or how to take out time to grocery shop when you’re running from one class to another all week, or even which medicine to get when you catch a cold right before finals. But maybe that’s the real learning you get being so far away from home: on how to grow up.

So that’s how I became an adult, or at least felt one step closer.

The People

By the time my junior (third) year rolled around, just before COVID hit, I’d gotten the lay of the land. It felt like I was living weekend to weekend and assignment to assignment, always adding things to my endless to-do list. However, the best moments of respite students find is often by meeting new people, and there’s no better place than college to do so.

It’s a fairly common trend amongst international students to go abroad and find other international students from their communities to befriend. At Berkeley, I saw most Chinese students hang out with other Chinese students, and the same for Taiwanese students, and it extended to my fellow Indian students as well. I think it provided us great comfort to find people who could understand the shared experience of moving from their home country to the US to study at a foreign university.

Interestingly, I spent the majority of my collegiate years running away from that community. I’d convinced myself that if I found solace in Indian friends, I’d be too deep in my comfort zone to ever get out. I never joined the Indian student association, nor did I pick an Indian roommate. I wanted to find a new identity for myself and I knew that forging that would require me to meet people different from myself. I had to learn about their lives and their interests and all they want to change in the world, but if I stuck to the people who also went to Berkeley from Delhi, I thought I’d never grow. I don’t know if that assumption is correct or even fair, but it’s still a decision I made and stuck with. Fortunately, it found me many new friends.

My freshman year roommate was a lovely athlete from Utah, Julia, who I grew extremely close to in our dorm. I made friends of all ethnicities, nationalities, and genders in my classes and deliberately picked members for project teams who seemed different from me. College was the only time I would have access to the brightest minds from around the globe, all in one place, and I wanted to make use of that. So I did, and it was great.

Except for the times it wasn’t all that great. Every now and then, a bout of loneliness and homesickness hits every student abroad. In those moments, I would give everything to be teleported back home, to everything familiar and safe. While I doubt this is politically correct to state, even the kindest of white people wouldn’t understand that feeling. When I was tired of eating bland food or when I was hurt and scared to go to the hospital or when everyone felt like a stranger I couldn’t trust, I would miss India and my family and the conveniences I’d left behind. Sometimes, that would translate to staying in bed for hours. Other times, it meant calling my mom in the middle of the night and crying on the phone because I couldn’t keep my brave face on any longer. The social dynamics were a lot to juggle, and they never really got simpler, no matter how many years I spent abroad.

So that’s when I realized that all of this was part of the experience - the parties, the drama, the laughs, the heartbreak, the best friends, the sworn enemies, it’s all meant to teach you something.

The Trauma

It’s obvious that life out there isn’t easy. Even for the richest and smartest and best of students, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome in the journey that is college.

For an entire semester, I spent every waking minute trying to maximize my chances of getting into Haas, but Berkeley is a huge public university, with its huge public university problems. There are barely enough resources for in-state students at Cal, so forget being an international student trying to get help. Want to get into a club? Too bad, the executive board “vibed” better with the surfer girl from Los Angeles. Need help with your resume? The next available appointment at the career center is in three months. Struggling with paying the exorbitant fees and rent? Sorry, international students don’t qualify for any aid. There’s clearly no end to the systemic issues you’ll face at college, and at some point, you’ll get fed up.

Any human being carrying so much on their shoulders is bound to get burnt out. And what happens when students hit a dead end? They look for an escape.

A student’s first wild college party, overflowing with alcohol and drugs, is always the most tempting. After multiple rounds of midterms and learning to live alone and the peer pressure of fitting into the college crowd, a little bit of indulgence is warranted. What we don’t realize is that one night of binge drinking quickly becomes two, and soon you’re out drinking every weekend. Some amount of rebellion is natural, especially considering most of these students are away from their helicopter parents for the first time. However, the problems arise when substances become a coping mechanism and everything spirals out of control.

I’ve seen many of my friends at college fall victims to this method of escape. I don’t judge them, nor do I pity them, but it simply highlights a flaw in the system. College puts such enormous pressure on these young adults that they’re given no other options to let loose and catch a break. The stress of academics, professional pursuits, finding friends, finding a partner, taking care of yourself, and being a well-adjusted individual, all building on top of the burnout most “gifted kids” already carry from high school, it’s simply way too much.

That’s why taking care of our mental health is so crucial in college, but it’s also extremely inaccessible. It’s quite evident that the mental health conversation is tokenized nowadays to make up for it being taboo for so long. In the current climate, all schools and colleges are forced to do things that’ll “help students’ mental health” but instead of changing the systems to actually make the journey easier on us, they usually pick surface-level activities that would qualify as the bare minimum. For example - one of the activities we had on campus was called “Destress with Dogs” where a bunch of puppies would be brought to campus before finals week so students could play with the dogs and relieve some stress. While that is adorable and a great idea, it simply provides a band-aid solution to the underlying problem of students struggling to cope with the academic pressure at Cal. Funds should instead be going to robust programs that genuinely help us, like ensuring that students can access therapists of all backgrounds without waiting for months to get an appointment. This is the kind of stuff you don’t expect reputed universities like Berkeley to mess up, but the truth is, you don’t get most of what you assume to be a given before reaching your college in the US.

So I realized that nobody else is going to prioritize my wellbeing until I do, and it led me to a pleasantly unexpected revelation.

The Finale

There are many who are able to handle the craziness of college abroad perfectly seamlessly, and there are others who fail miserably and end up disappointing the people in their lives. Either way, college is a defining time. It is the only time we get to come into our own and make the memories of a lifetime. It is also the time to build character and find the traits we want to discard before entering adulthood. For a lot of students, it’s a time of heightened stress and anxiety and strain on their mental and physical health, and all this stuff got a lot worse in the pandemic.

All of a sudden, in March 2020, I was away from every friend I’d made in the last three years. I was back home in India, staying up all night to take classes online and sleeping during the day. Depressed, isolated, lost, and confused about what was going to happen and where my life was headed. Other international students who had graduated before me were also left in limbo, unable to find work or sponsorships. Many were forced to go to grad school or come back home, and I could tell it was torment for them and their families alike. After spending all that time, effort, and money, to end up back in the place they wanted to leave, even further from their goal than when they started off.

But the question is: why did they want to leave so bad? Is it truly worth it, to study and work and slog in such a faraway place? Is the US really all that great? I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not trying to advocate for nor against moving abroad. I’m just reconsidering an idea that was planted in my head a long time back, that painted the US as a promised land where somehow everything is better.

So that’s when I decided to wake up from my American dream.

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