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First Challenges
By Sushama Kirtikar -

So, it was not the most elegant send-off. But you have to admit it was memorable. Your aji, ba or amma had hurriedly stuffed homemade garlic chutney in your carry-on bag. Thank goodness for the grace of sandalwood garlands or rajanigandha bouquets of the time; they helped mask the pungent aroma that wafted uninhibitingly from your belongings. Armed with hope and dread woven together, you embarked on your journey as a student in a foreign land.

Students from India are ill-equipped for the American academic scene: informality of the classroom setting (professors called by first names, legs propped on desktops), fierce competitiveness, over emphasis on individualism, independence and sheer lack of social support. By contrast, the Indian culture is steeped in the collective norm, spirit of co-operation, interdependence, mutual support and respect for elders.

In India we are taught self-effacement. The language of emotions is seen as being overly self-absorbed, whereas the more stoic approach is praised as exemplary. This gets misinterpreted here as being shy, unfriendly or lacking in self-confidence. Students must quickly find a voice to assert their needs and tout accomplishments or be left behind in academia.

Social pressure is immense if the student does not wish to frequent bars or clubs. Despite understanding peers, there is a sense of being cast out of the loop. Slowly and insidiously, some start feeling like social misfits, leading to isolation and ultimate depression. Some adhere exclusively to the desi scene, with icecream socials, cricket matches and musical nights ringing in nostalgic melodies. Others venture out drawn to the allure of dating and taste the mystique of interracial relationships.

Performance anxiety mounds to a dangerous high for many super achievers. They arrive packed with high expectations from parents and a history of excellence in high schools, or come from families of prominence and must now strive to protect their name and fame. Being dutiful children is equated with a pristine school performance. Financial burdens force some to take on part time jobs. Caught unawares, grades slip. Promised remittances never make it to the mailbox of an ailing grandmother. E-mails become infrequent, brief and taciturn to the wistful father back home.

In an attempt to belong to the host culture, students inadvertently alienate their parents whose encouraging smile and approving nod are now morphed into frozen chagrin and disbelief. Students struggle in vain within a bottomless cauldron of confusion, shame and loneliness. Many bend and falter under the pressure of these psychological burdens.

“The number of foreign students at U.S. universities fell in the 2003-04 school year … even as India bucked the trend, sending 7 percent more students [up to 79,736],” according to a study by the Institute of International Education. By no means a modest number, why do students seem to disappear into the woodwork as soon as they enter the sacred portals of a college campus? What can we do to help them cut loose the insulation, bridge the gap and extend a helping hand? I urge you to send your responses and ideas to Khaas Baat, as the next column will address possible solutions.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or (727) 586-0626, or e-mail at

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