My Life, My Words

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Published by the Democrat and Chronicle, October 1, 2006

There is an ongoing national debate about how to increase the number of foreign students pursuing higher education in the United States. Today the US continues to be one of the most sought after nations in the world for higher education, although other countries such as Australia, Canada, and England are competing today for a spot on the top destinations for international higher education. As an immigrant who came to this country nearly twenty five years ago as an international student on a Rotary scholarship to the University of Central Florida, I speak for many students when I say it has been a life transforming and life enriching experience.

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Usually the entire family and even extended family is involved in the decision to send a child to the United States for higher education. In spite of the best efforts of many US institutions, many international students find the entire process of applying for admission quite mysterious. I remember reading the admissions cover letter over and over again until I memorized every word. Cliché expressions like “we encourage you to apply,” felt like an exclusive invitation from America. There was great celebration the day the admissions letter arrived. The entire family prayed and I filled out the visa form at an “auspicious” time. The journey to the visa office and the interview with the immigration officer are memorable milestones for international students. My father cried profusely when I got my visa. It was a turning point in our lives. It was the fulfillment of his life-long dream and that of my grandparents. For my mother, promise, hope, and optimism were mixed with the sadness of separation. I was the first in the family to go abroad for an education.

When my husband and I arrived on the shores of American in our early twenties, we were in awe. McDonalds French fries was the only choice for a vegetarian who wanted to eat out on a cheap budget. I remember writing home after my first visit to a Kmart. I was wowed by its size and wrote it had “everything under the sun!” The highways were breathtaking and we were amazed at the speed at which cars traveled. We were moved by how even strangers greeted us on the streets. Once the awe and wonder passed, loneliness set in. Coming from a land and culture where families, extended families, friends, and neighbors congregated and interfaced on a daily basis, for no rhyme or reason, and without prior appointment, the “mind-your-own-business” culture of the US created a deep sense of loneliness and was emotionally draining. I remember with a deep sense of gratitude, nearly a quarter century later, faculty and staff who reached out to me. My accent or my skin color were not deterrents or uncomfortable to them. They cared and they showed it in ways that had a profound impact on my future success.

America continues to be the dream land for many students all over the world, although only few make it. So when you meet an international student, realize it is not as easy as hopping on a plane and coming to the US. It is a bitter-sweet journey. I remember the heart ache of leaving my loved ones behind tempered with the optimism and excitement of starting a new life in America, the land of dreams. Nearly a quarter century later, every time I board my return flight from India, the ache and the excitement are as intense and genuine as it was the first time I came to America. This nation gives international students a great opportunity to pursue their dreams while being true to their roots. For that, on behalf of the many thousands of international students in this country, I am grateful to America.

Uma G. Gupta is a Lead Professor at SUNY Brockport and is the Senior Advisor to Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

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