With the right planning and research, the journey to a U.S. degree can be a rewarding experience.
Adithiya Sreenivasan (left) has a master’s degree in electrical engineering with specialization in power and energy systems from Arizona State University Tempe campus. Adithya Raam Sankar (right) earned a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from University of Georgia, Athens.
Applying to a U.S. university, securing funding, navigating the visa process and settling into a new life far from home is a daunting process for many. But with the right planning and research it can be an exciting journey. In addition, strong alumni networks and community support can help students get the most out of the U.S. university experience.
“The first factor which I looked for in shortlisting my destination was to look at the universities which offered the specialization I was looking for,” says Adithiya Sreenivasan, who has a master’s degree in electrical engineering with specialization in power and energy systems from Arizona State University Tempe campus. “I looked at the research areas the professors were currently working on and the courses that were being offered for the power and energy domain.” He shortlisted public universities over private ones due to the cost factor. “I also looked at how alums from the university fared post their graduation,” he adds. Adithiya Sreenivasan currently works with Accenture in Chennai.
Adithya Raam Sankar, who earned a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from University of Georgia, Athens, based his initial search on courses offered and research facilities. “After that, I graded all of them in multiple categories like career opportunities, tuition and fees, cost of living, weather, along with qualitative measures like personal liking and living conditions,” he says. “Considering all factors, I was able to understand what would be a better choice overall.” Sankar currently works with Oracle in Virginia.
Financial aid and student visas
Once all the applications are submitted, a prospective student’s primary task is to secure funding. Both Sankar and Adithiya Sreenivasan strongly recommend that applicants start consolidating their funding options, like loans, well in advance. “Arranging for educational loans is an important piece of work for a student who wants financial assistance,” says Adithiya Sreenivasan. “I approached various banks to compare the interest rates and kept my paperwork ready. The loan approval process may be lengthy, and hence, it is important to factor this in the timeline,” he says.
Sankar started researching loans and scholarship options even before the acceptance letters came in. “Since my primary source was an educational loan, I started shopping around for best offers,” he says. “Alongside, I was also looking at scholarship options within the universities I applied to, as well as outside sources. While this process was going on, the results started coming in.”
When Sankar’s acceptance letters came in, it was time to also start thinking about applying for a visa. The visa process and paperwork might look lengthy and difficult, “but if we break them down into smaller chunks of modules, we can slowly but steadily complete the process,” says Adithiya Sreenivasan. He scheduled his appointment well in advance to ensure there were no last-minute hassles.
Along with funding and the student visa process, Adithiya Sreenivasan started brushing up on the fundamentals in his field of study after submitting his applications. “I created a primer document, in which I listed the various books and prerequisites suggested by professors, current students and alums,” he says. “I slowly ticked them off as I completed them. This is a vital step to acclimatize quickly for the master’s program.”
Many new experiences await international students when they arrive at a U.S. university campus. “The biggest difference, I realized, was the style of education,” says Sankar. “Here, it was predominantly based on application of knowledge as opposed to the emphasis on theory in India.” Adithiya Sreenivasan adds the U.S. education system evaluates students on a continuous basis, unlike his experience in the Indian system which was “more heavily loaded during the end semesters or finals.” He liked how they were given homework and projects regularly, which went in tandem with the lectures by professors. “This helped to build the knowledge steadily over a period of time. A lot of emphasis was given to specialization within a particular field,” he says. “In India, we were given more exposure to a wider range of fields, especially in my undergraduate days.”
The concept of office hours with professors is another novel dimension of U.S. higher education. Students can meet professors during this time and get their questions clarified. “You can also share your ideas on the concepts being taught in the class,” says Adithiya Sreenivasan. “Students get good hands-on experience and mentorship during the course of study.”
The vibrant university campus can offer a welcome break from immersive study hours, as it did for Adithiya Sreenivasan. “The sports facilities were amazing, and we used to spend the latter half of the evening on the grounds playing various sports like tennis and cricket,” he says. To meet living expenses, he worked part-time at the International Students and Scholar Center, where he made a lot of friends from different countries. “I am still in touch with many of them,” he says.
“Being a college town, Athens was filled with students and had a very encouraging environment,” says Sankar. When homesick, Sankar relied on the India association at the university to feel closer to his roots. “I missed Indian culture and traditions, especially during festival seasons, although the Indian student association at UGA made every effort to make us feel at home.”
Internships and OPT
While Adithiya Sreenivasan decided to stay on campus for his internship, Sankar made good use of the university career center to navigate internship and job applications. For students who find industry internship out of reach, the campus fills that gap and offers ample opportunities for experience enrichment, says Sankar, who also prepared for career fairs days in advance to shortlist companies he wanted to talk to and the openings available.
“An internship does open a plethora of opportunities for a full-time job, but the research experience adds a lot of value to your profile,” says Adithiya Sreenivasan. He urges students to thoroughly read about terms like Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and the rules associated with them. “Please use authenticated sources such as the U.S. immigration website or university immigration pages,” he adds.
Sankar advises working with the university career center closely from the first semester. “Understand and embrace the education structure as well as the job search process.”
These and many other remarkable features of U.S. higher education have empowered thousands of graduates to build meaningful lives and careers. “It has significantly helped in navigating my career so far in a much better way. There are a lot of similarities between how I interacted with professors and co-students at the university and how I work with co-workers today,” says Sankar. “It has also helped me as an individual to take more informed decisions, become more responsible and manage time better.”
Even though Adithiya Sreenivasan graduated from Arizona State University Tempe campus almost a decade ago, he says the concepts taught by his professors are still fresh in his mind as he uses them in his daily work.
“U.S. education has brought in more depth and structured thinking for my professional life. It has helped me go to the root cause of any issue for the clients that I serve in the corporate world,” he says. “I owe a lot to the U.S. education and corporate experience that I got as it has given me an identity in my current life.”
Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.