Cutting-edge programs, cross-cultural exposure and networking opportunities at U.S. universities help students set the stage for a global career.
Sudha M. Raghavan was part of an augmented reality project called TheatAR, which was a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University’s school of drama and the entertainment technology center. Photograph courtesy Sudha M. Raghavan
The benefits of attending a university in the United States go beyond obtaining an international degree. There are more than 4,000 accredited colleges and universities to choose from, and each institution offers a distinctive experience to its students.
Along with a cutting-edge and globally competitive academic environment, there is one other important reason to study at a higher education institution in the United States. “The most valuable experience that a U.S. education offers is the opportunity to study with American students and international students from across the globe,” says Aparna Chandrashekaran, EducationUSA adviser at the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF). “This cross-cultural exposure and networking opportunity is invaluable and sets the stage for a global career.”
These unique advantages were among the factors that inspired Aravind Natarajan and Sudha M. Raghavan from Chennai to pursue higher studies in the United States. Natarajan received his doctoral degree from Cornell University in New York in 2019. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in California. Raghavan lives in California’s Bay Area and graduated with a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania in 2019.
Excerpts from an interview with Natarajan and Raghavan about the application process and their educational experiences.
Why did you choose to attend a U.S. university?
Natarajan: For my doctoral program, I prioritized seeking out opportunities that aligned with my interest in bacterial genetics. Of the programs I applied to, the microbiology program at Cornell University offered three fantastic research groups that were pursuing projects of interest to me. Additionally, the faculty leading these groups engaged in thoughtful conversations with me by email and video chat regarding my interest and discussed potential projects I could work on.
For my postdoctoral training, I exclusively applied to programs in the United States since I felt comfortable in the American academic system.
Raghavan: Since my childhood, I wanted to pursue a career that is a combination of art and technology. After exploring a lot of avenues, I decided to focus on alternate and virtual reality technologies and computer graphics studies. Several top universities that excel in graphics research and futuristic visual computing technologies are located in the United States. Moreover, as a hub for the entertainment industry, there were a lot of industry-standard collaborations with well-known organizations and companies, which would offer me hands-on experience while connecting with experts in the field.
What was the application process like?
Natarajan: For my doctoral program, the application process was very involved and tedious. But being thorough helped me make informed decisions. First, I worked on my statement of purpose for a couple of months. My essay went through several rounds of edits, with inputs from my parents, friends and mentors. Next, I worked on creating application packages that were personalized for each program of interest. This took some research because I had to understand the core interests of the faculty and the programs, and evaluate how I could be a contributing member. Then I worked on triaging letters of recommendation to each of the programs. Finally, I maintained a record of each program’s deadlines and requirements to stay on top of my application deadlines.
I felt better prepared while applying for my postdoctoral training. I enjoyed reaching out to multiple faculty and discussing science that we were both passionate about. However, the process was also nerve-racking because I had to secure a position before graduating, while also working on experiments and writing my dissertation.
Raghavan: I had my scores and transcripts ready as soon as I could, and having scanned and verified copies with me sped up my application process. I started off with a spreadsheet as keeping track of deadlines and program requirements for each university was hard.
Since my interests were in visual arts, most of the courses I selected had an additional requirement to submit an online portfolio or assignment as part of the application. I carefully started orienting my college projects and internships to contribute to my portfolio. Preparing the assignment or portfolio piece gave a first-hand experience of what to expect if I took a particular route. This helped me pick my university after the admits were received.
What was it like to move to a new country and begin your classes?
Natarajan: I was overwhelmed by the many unknown elements of searching for housing options in Ithaca, New York. I wasn’t sure about what amenities to look for in an apartment, how to identify safe and convenient locations or how to carefully vet a lease agreement. Therefore, I took the relatively safer option of living on campus. While a little more expensive than some options in the city, this turned out to be a wonderful choice. Not only was my transition seamless, but I also had the opportunity to build a community with peers across the university.
The start of classes brought a lot of excitement and nervous anxiety from the drive to perform well. I found the incredible freedom offered in the American academic system challenging to navigate. Here, faculty in the microbiology program and peer mentors were incredibly valuable. Once I learned how the system worked, its flexibility became my favorite part. I took classes in biology and my primary area of research, along with classes on Argentine tango, for instance.
Raghavan: A lot of resources showed up once I started talking to other accepted students. I found my roommates through a Facebook group that was created for incoming students at Carnegie Mellon. We also planned travel dates to arrive at Pittsburgh around the same time. Our classes started soon after the orientation programs. It started getting challenging from Day 1, but we enjoyed every moment of it because there was no time to be bored!
Did you develop friendships in the United States? Were there clubs or other organizations that you participated in?
Natarajan: During my time in graduate school, I made friends from various walks of life who still influence me in so many ways. The first crop of friends I made were fellow students who traveled from India. Next, I met my cohort in the microbiology program, who took me grocery shopping because I didn’t have a car, and with whom I would spend a lot of time learning about American culture. I also befriended fellow residents in the housing community, members of student activities and clubs I participated in, and people not affiliated with Cornell whom I met at social events around town.
Photograph courtesy Aravind Natarajan
Raghavan: Quite a lot of my close friends are from my graduate school. My roommates were studying in different programs and we always invited our friends over for group study sessions or a movie night. This gave us all a chance to meet a lot of new people. Most departments also organized social events and career networking events that allowed students to invite others. This helped us expand both our social and professional circles. Making professional connections was a very important part of our school experience.
Did your expectations match reality? In what ways were you surprised?
Natarajan: My experience in graduate school far exceeded my expectations in every way. In academics, I learned not only the latest advancements in microbiology, but also about many different fields like global politics and behavioral economics by attending talks across campus. I experienced intense winters in upstate New York, and a slice of global culture in the tiny town of Ithaca. I learned forms of dance, ate Ethiopian food for the first time, and watched some of the best artists from around the world perform at Bailey Hall.
The challenges were also beyond my expectations. I barely got to visit home every other year and dearly missed family and friends. My ignorance about how things worked in this part of the world, ranging from how to secure a cell phone plan to filing my income taxes and a variety of social norms, led to regular anxieties.
Raghavan: The challenging coursework definitely matched my expectations. I was surprised by how different the teaching and testing methodology is in the United States compared to what we had experienced in India. I learned concepts from different supplemental resources, attended study groups with teaching assistants and formed peer connections. My coursework was also heavily project-based. It was a refreshing experience to be working on something hands-on from the first week.
While I was aware of the curriculum, I was surprised by how different it is to work on teams with people from all over the world. We learned the importance and struggles of teamwork and how diversity can make a big difference to the end result of a project. I would have never had a chance to meet students from so many nationalities in any other place, and graduate school is one of the very few places that can provide such an opportunity.
What would you tell people who are thinking of pursuing higher studies in the United States?
Natarajan: I would highly encourage them to pursue their higher education in the United States. I recommend making the most of the variety of experiences as an opportunity to expand your worldview and being aware of the resources required to have a successful experience. Finally, be yourself. After all, isn’t that why the program recruited you in the first place?
Raghavan: My first piece of advice would be to start researching early. Planning when to give standardized tests and when to start the application process is very important. Once the planning is out of the way, you will have enough time to focus on making sure every application is crafted to match the university you are applying to.
The admission committee will only know you by the set of materials you present to them, so make your application as clear and compelling as possible. This requires that the applicant also understand what the university is looking for. Most universities display information about their alumni, which gives a good idea of the school’s expectations on backgrounds and requirements.
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.