My name is Neha Hatolkar.
INTERVIEWED BY Nikhil Jammalamadaka x 10

Pune, India

Chicago, Illinois



What made you immigrate to the United States?

My husband, Ashutosh, and I have always been very mobile. I started my career at a big IT services company, and my position allowed me to move easily across multiple cities in India. I initially worked in Mumbai and Pune right after college. I then met Ashutosh when I was 23 years old. Since he was based in Bengaluru, I requested an interoffice transfer so we could be together. We stayed there for a year.

In 2013, a Hyderabad–based router manufacturing startup read the research blog Ashutosh had created while pursuing his master’s in computer science from IIT Bombay. They really liked his ideas and offered him an exciting role. We, therefore, moved to Hyderabad. After six months with the startup, Ashutosh continued his research by returning to academia and pursuing a Ph.D. in mobile computing and systems. Since I could see that he was both skilled and passionate about his work, we started planning and working to make that happen.

In many ways, it was a tricky decision for us. Everyone in our family and friends kept asking why we wanted to quit our current jobs and leave our fully settled and perfectly comfortable life in India to start from scratch in a completely different country. However, given that we were still relatively young, we both felt confident taking such a bold and risky step. Our courage and conviction were rewarded when Ashutosh got accepted in 2014 as a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, a top university for mobile computing.

It will soon be ten years since we moved to the U.S. We started with a new beginning in a new country. While we did not know what was in store for us then, it has been a fantastic journey!

Who met you when you arrived, and what did you do that first day?

We landed in Chicago on August 1, 2014. While we have family in the U.S., almost all are in California. We knew no one in Chicago. So technically, the first person I remember meeting in the U.S. was the immigration officer. After that, it was just the two of us.
My husband’s UIUC Ph.D. course was only supposed to start in mid–August. Since we had ample time to settle down, we stayed in Chicago for one night before traveling to Urbana–Champaign. We toured the Field Museum of Natural History (a must–see), explored the downtown Chicago area, and visited a few restaurants. I remember not being thrilled with American food, especially when compared to Indian food – it took us a while before we developed a taste for it.

What were some memorable experiences you had as you were settling down in the first few months – both positive and negative?

I fondly remember our first few months in Urbana–Champaign, which was to be our home for the next five years (i.e., until 2019). The UIUC campus is spread across these two super–cute twin cities, which were well–connected by local bus services. We spent the first few weeks exploring the cities before Ashutosh started his courses. We soon got into a rhythm of using the buses for all our local travel, be it shopping or entertainment. The best part was that we lived right on campus; Ashutosh's classes and research lab were just a 2–minute walk from our apartment.

My favorite hangout space was the Champaign Library. It was a beautiful library with a fantastic collection of books and DVDs. Watching the movies and documentaries I borrowed from the library helped me understand many cultural nuances of American life, especially given how often movie references are used in day–to–day conversations in the U.S. In fact, that learning still helps me at my workplace today.

I also remember feeling the stark contrast between our lives in India and the U.S. In India, we were earning very well, living in a big home, eating wherever we wanted, and traveling very comfortably. In the U.S., we had to live on a tight budget around Ashutosh’s stipend. I remember stopping to consider whether I should spend $5 on a crown of cauliflower when that money could cover two full meals with another vegetable.

Even shopping for groceries was very different. In India, we would make a phone call, and the groceries would be at the doorstep in minutes. In Urbana–Champaign, the Indian grocery store was not on a convenient bus route. Shopping involved a lot of walking, waiting, and carrying heavy groceries, sometimes in negative temperatures. That being said, we were still happy and up to the challenges posed by the move to the U.S.

Once Ashutosh started his Ph.D. courses in full earnest and got busy with his research, I often found myself alone in our apartment. I spent time on WhatsApp, talking to my parents and in–laws back in India, watching movies borrowed from the library every alternate day, and reading. Soon, I was ready to return to working or studying formally. I pursued both options in parallel. Coincidentally, one fine day in February 2015, both options opened up. I was accepted into the MSTM program at UIUC and offered a role as an application developer at the UIUC Tax School. I took the job since I was pregnant with my son by then. I received a non–cap H1B VISA and started working.

Looking back on your initial days, what advice would you give to new immigrants arriving in the United States today?

First and foremost, prepare yourself beforehand to know what to expect for your life in the U.S. For instance, don’t be surprised when you have to do all your house chores yourself! Second, set up your primary care doctor early so you can get an appointment quickly when needed. The healthcare system can take time to adjust, especially for folks used to the conveniences in India. Third, do not hesitate to ask for help. Join social media groups to network and find friends around town. These friends will become like your family here in a foreign country.