What brought you to the United States?
In 1977, I came to USA to do a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin. I had just obtained a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras. Outside of my undergraduate curriculum, on my own, I had learnt a lot about Computer Science and had used IITM’s IBM mainframe extensively.
What were your first impressions of America?
My impression of America, the first foreign country that I was visiting, was based on Hollywood movies and technical papers that I had read. I was under the impression that all of Texas would be the same, in terms of flat terrain, shrubs, dry land, and so on. To my utter surprise, Austin turned out to be totally different from the rest of Texas - hilly landscape, greenery, a river flowing through the city, three lakes - pretty much a “university plus state capital kind of town.”
How was it adjusting into the country?
I was so focused on my studies and such that I never got distracted by problems related to adjusting to the American way of life. UT Austin had a bunch of Indian students and a few Indian faculty members. There was an Indian Students Association where we had cultural activities like dancing Raas and Bhangra, and screening of Indian movies. The number of Indian Students was much smaller then compared to even by the time I left Austin four years later.
What was the hardest obstacle that you had to overcome?
When I arrived in Austin, I had no financial assistance. So, my mind was pretty much preoccupied with how quickly I could find some way of getting an income so that my parents won’t have to be burdened with supporting me. In that sense, my greatest concern was how I could impress the faculty members of the computer science department to get some assistantship quickly. I was very happy in the end because, within 10 days, I was able to get a job as a research assistant. That was a big relief. Before I arrived in USA, I was traumatized by the fact that there was no place except University of Nebraska at Lincoln that offered me any kind of assistantship. That was a big disappointment as it took me a while to convince my parents that I should still go over to USA for higher studies.
Did you feel homesick during the first few days/weeks after you had arrived in America?
As I said earlier, my initial focus was on trying to get my studies and financial matters taken care of. I didn’t get hung up so much on feeling homesick, etcetera. Since we didn't have a home phone back in India, I had to write letters to communicate with my family in India. My first trip back to India was three years after I came to the US. It was right before I started my internship in West Berlin in the summer of 1980. I didn’t have any relatives at the time in the States. I was the first one to come to America, even in my extended family. I got excited about sightseeing in Western Europe in the summer of 1979 when I did an internship in Paris. I used a two-month Eurail pass to do an extensive amount of sightseeing that summer.
What did you do on your first day? What did you eat? Where did you go?
Well, I do recall landing at JFK airport in New York City, and spending a night in a nearby motel. I took a shuttle bus to the motel. At the time, I thought I might just go to University of Nebraska at Lincoln since they were giving me a partial assistantship. As I left India, I was still debating whether to go to Austin or to Lincoln. In the end, even though I wasn’t getting an assistantship, I decided on UT Austin, since it was a better school for computer science. An added benefit was better weather. In other words, there was a huge amount of uncertainty when I landed in USA for the first time in late August 1977.
What advice would you give someone arriving in the United States today as a new immigrant?
Life now is so much easier for such people because they can find out so much about the place that they’re coming to since they can just search on the internet. I don't think life is as hard at all in so many ways compared to a few decades ago. These days plenty of information is easily accessible. There is also the ability to get in touch with people in USA by posting on forums and asking for help, and so on. Now, it’s so much easier to maintain one’s ethnic interests in terms of culture, cuisine, religion, language and entertainment.
Do you have any reflections you want to share?
I’ve been very happy about the fact that I risked coming to the US as a student without financial assistance. My parents were concerned about that decision and instead suggested that I do a master’s degree in IIT Madras itself with a full scholarship. I had made up my mind that I was going to study abroad. I knew that I’d get bored doing my master’s in India itself. In the end, the big risk that I took paid off.
I'm happy with my decision to stick to one company for 38.5 years, and to be a researcher the entire time without taking up management responsibilities. I am also happy that I got to spend close to three years in India as the IBM Chief Scientist which allowed me to do something for the country of my birth, India. Overall, I have a sense of fulfillment with the career that I chose to go in for. I hope to continue to be in touch with technical matters even after my retirement at the end of June 2020.