I arrived in the US via plane, which landed in BWI Airport. All I had with me was 2 suitcases, a backpack, and about $400. I came to study as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. I was picked up at the airport by a graduate student with a car and was put up in a house rented by a bunch of other graduate students. I was told that I could spend the night, but I would have to figure out my own food and way the next morning. They gave me a rug, which I laid on the floor in one of the bedrooms, and went to sleep.
The next morning, I figured something out for breakfast for myself from the barren fridge–I don’t really remember what but I remember it wasn’t appetizing or filling – and set off for campus. I didn’t have a car or really know anyone so I had to tackle the public transportation system. Everything was new for me, from the bathroom, to faucets, to paying for transportation fare, and even the side of the road the bus drove on. I remember struggling to understand the accent of the bus driver, but I was eventually able to figure out how to pay and get off at the right stop, and made my way to campus.
I went to the graduate school office in the engineering building to register myself and sign up for classes, especially since I had a teaching assistantship. I was in awe of everything but also incredibly nervous. I remember how helpful the front desk lady was in getting me settled and oriented on campus. She passed away from cancer about 5 years ago.
My second day at school was interesting. I was told that before I could go TA, I would need to complete an English assessment, which would be recorded. The proctor told me that I needed to work on speaking slowly, pausing between sentences, and enunciating my words better because of my accent. But, she also told me that “compared to the other Indian students, you’re okay”, which I took as a compliment. I was then able to meet the professor I was TA-ing under and he told me I’d be running the undergraduate lab for his classes.
Another part of my academic life in the first couple weeks that I will never forget is an accusation of cheating. One of my professors assigned a $100 textbook that I couldn’t afford, I was a poor grad student afterall. Luckily, one of my suitcases I brought with me was full of textbooks from home. We took an exam, and when we got the papers back the professor told me and 3 other students, who also were from IIT Bombay, to stay back after class because he needed to talk to us. I end up going first and he tells me that I replied to this question identically to the other 3 IIT boys. He says we must have been cheating, because he didn’t teach it to us this way, despite me trying to tell him this is how we learned it back in India. He doesn’t listen and works himself up into this rant, accusing “us Indians” of being so entitled, big-headed, and full of self-importance. He then threatened to report me to the authorities for plagiarism and cheating, that I would be “expelled and the immigration authorities would deport me”. I was terrified. Here I had basically just arrived and now an authority figure was threatening to get me deported when I had done nothing wrong. I pulled out my textbook from IIT Bombay and pointed out the paragraph where I had referenced my answer from. The textbook had been written from one of the foremost researchers in this field, who had a PhD from Harvard. My professor immediately cowered, recounted his statements claiming he had misspoke and begged me to not tell anyone about this incident. He would later go on to be a part of my PhD panel when I defended my thesis. I will never forget nor forgive him.
The first month was also very hard to adjust in both my living situation and being away from home. My first living situation was hell. I initially thought I’d be sharing a room in a two-room-two-bath apartment. But, the first night I was there, over a dozen Desi software engineers trickled in, putting rugs on the floor so they could sleep in various parts of the apartment, and raiding the fridge. I was shocked and miserable - I didn’t know where to get food, I had no bed, sheets, pillows, and was not prepared for being shoved into an apartment with a bunch of random strangers. Thankfully, I was able to reach out to one of my friends from IIT undergrad, who graciously allowed me to move in with him and his roommates. They fed me my first proper meal in 3 days - home cooked rice, daal, and sabzi. He introduced me to a couple of his other friends, and the 5 of us are still incredibly close friends almost 30 years later.
I was also incredibly homesick and guilt-ridden. Calling home from the landline used to cost $1.72 a minute and I barely made ends meet for rent and groceries. I could only talk to my mom for 5-10 minutes at a time. She used to be in tears and worried out of her mind for me and my wellbeing. It got easier the more I got settled and once email communication was more accessible (even though I had to use the computer labs on campus).
It wasn’t all bad though. I made lifelong friends in that first month. I also remember my first winter in the US. I’d never experienced snow or a proper winter in Mumbai. But, my first winter here was the biggest snowstorm in decades. Campus was shut down for a week and sp were the roads nearby. I remember being in awe at the snow and having so much fun exploring.
It was quite a learning curve for me, especially considering I had little to nothing with me when I arrived and my initial lack of a stable and safe housing situation. Not to mention, how much people thought they could take advantage of me and how much power they liked to lord over me. But, I was able to situate myself and find a comfortable place for myself to exist with a great group of friends that I still see regularly today.