Studying in America: Then & Now

A look at student life in the United States, in the 1960s and 1980s.

By Usha Helweg and Simran Singh

Retrospective Edition, January 2022

Studying in America: Then & Now

Usha Helweg (left) remembers the exciting—and often shocking—new world that the American campus was to her and other Indian students in the early Sixties. Two decades later Simran Singh (right) and her young contemporaries were equally excited at the opportunities offered at the academic and social levels. Photographs courtesy Usha Helweg and Simran Singh

By Usha Helweg

“Postpone departure until after results, love, Daddy,” read the telegram of May 1, 1960. I had finished my B.A. examination at Delhi University and was to join my parents in London, and then proceed on to America where I would start my graduate studies. My father, Amolak Ram Mehta, had been a Fulbright and Rockefeller Scholar at Johns Hopkins and UCLA medical schools. He had acquainted me with the opportunities abroad and had promised that if I proved myself by doing well academically, he would arrange for me to do advanced studies in the United States.

My father was a gambler. He had gone against family opinion by sending my sightless brother, Ved Mehta, to the Arkansas School for the Blind when he was only 14 years old. “Why waste money on a handicapped child?” many had argued. Ved had proved my father correct. He had earned the coveted Phi Beta Kappa key, written his autobiography, studied at Oxford and Harvard and earned a reputation as an outstanding writer. Although I was a girl and number six among seven children, my father was willing to break social norms again and not limit his investment to his sons—he was willing to give me a quality education rather than have me married off. I worked extremely hard for many years to claim his offer. He may have had second thoughts but I was confident and not about to relinquish the prize I felt I had earned. “Will definitely pass, sailing May 17, love, Usha,” went my reply. I was going to America regardless of results.

There has been a relatively small Indian representation on America’s campuses since the turn of the century. England had been the wealthy Indians’ preferred location for studies in the preindependence period. Its emphasis on arts and letters gave the nationalists the necessary philosophical and legal skills to fight for rights; many of India’s great leaders of the freedom movement—including Nehru and Gandhi—were products of British universities. The princely families considered Oxford and Cambridge more prestigious than any other universities, anywhere in the world, as did officials who were making selections in civil services during the colonial period. The few Indian students who did go to America espoused India’s cause for independence and inspired many prominent Americans to lend their support to India’s freedom movement.

After independence Indian students in increasing numbers started looking toward the United States for their education. America’s attraction lay in the opportunity it offered for greater competency in the technical and business fields. It was the period that saw the beginnings of the exchange programs and the availability of financial aid. One exchange program that promoted Indo-American intellectual interaction was the Fulbright-Hays Program that established the United States Educational Foundation in India (USEFI). In the 25-year period after its implementation in 1950, it was responsible for over 5,000 Indian and American scholars crossing the oceans in exchange professorships and research projects. Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Hazen Foundation, Rotary International, Carnegie Corporation and others also lent their support to Indo-American scholarly exchange.

“I think practically every Indian student in America received almost full tuition and fees plus some living allowance during that time,” one former student recalled. He is probably right: American educational institutions were then expanding at a fast rate, money was readily available, and the spirit in the United States was one of helping people from developing countries. This resulted in the offer of liberal scholarships to study in American universities. Thus, in 1958, there were 2,585 Indians out of 43,391 foreign students in the United States. In 1972, the Indian contingent of 12,523 was the largest among foreign students and by 1978, India ranked seventh with 9,080 out of 235,509 of America’s foreign student population.

Some of these students had jobs in India and were in the United States on leave to get training that could advance their careers at home. Others had come under the auspices of American faculty members who had been in India and whom they had assisted on research projects. The teachers advised and encouraged promising students to go to the United States for further education, and sometimes helped them obtain financial aid.

The Indian student community that I joined in the United States in 1960 was imbued with the spirit of patriotism and service to the motherland. Optimistic of India’s future, the students knew that they could return to good jobs and make a valuable contribution to India’s development. I studied political science, for I aspired to be a high government official on my return. Other popular courses were economics, agriculture, urban development, business administration and science.

And meanwhile there was also one’s own economy to be kept in mind. My first day at Cornell brought me face to face with this problem. I arrived at Cornell University in the fall of 1960. My bus was a couple of hours late so it was after 5 p.m. when I reached the campus in a car. The offices were closed. Where was I to spend the night? One of the American students who had shared the cab with me suggested that I register at Willard Straight Hall, run by the student union. I went there and discovered that one night’s lodging at Willard Straight would cost me eight dollars. Forty rupees flashed through my mind, an outrageous amount for one night by the Indian standards I was used to. The expense unnerved me and I couldn’t sleep. “How am I going to survive in such an expensive country?” I asked myself. To conserve my money, I decided against dinner that night, satisfying my hunger by nibbling on some grapes and an apple that my father had given me.

Money was and still is a concern for Indian students in America, for all prices are seen in terms of rupees. I automatically found myself multiplying every dollar figure by five, calculating with a sinking heart how much it came to in rupees. My excitement at going to Cornell couldn’t help me overcome my fear that I would be a poor Indian foreign student. I had read about rich Americans “rolling in dollars” and an American friend in New Delhi had shown me slides of campus life. The color in the slides had made everything look “rich” and “expensive.” However, when I finally settled in Cascadilla Hall I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my contemporary graduate students were at my economic level, fending their way through school. Some were on assistantships, others on fellowships, partial scholarships or part-time jobs to defray costs. Everybody was friendly and no one looked down on me or any other graduate student because we were on a tight budget.

I wondered how my parents would react to my living in a coed dormitory. Even though the wings for boys and girls were separate, for me it was a new experience. My parents had sent me to a conservative all-girl convent school and college, where even the instructors were females. Apart from my brothers and male cousins, I had been around only females. Not only was I attending coeducational classes but living in a coeducational dorm! At first I was petrified but it did not take me long to realize that my fellow graduate students, American and other, were just as dedicated to their studies as I was and were not all lecherous males clamoring amorously for me.

The Indian male students immediately adopted me as a “sister” and charge. At Cornell, as on other campuses, an Indian was put automatically on the roll of the Indian Students Association and came under the wing of fellow Indians. They advised me where to eat, what to wear in winter, where to shop for bargains and to beware of American boys. I was a highly moral Hindu girl from a cultured family; therefore, they felt that my behavior had to be a reflection of my background. At first their concern was very comforting because I felt lost among the vast sea of students.

My father had advised me, “Do in Rome as the Romans do. I don’t want you to be a wallflower; do mix with fellow American students. Go out on dates and if you fall in love and want to marry, you will have your mother’s and my blessings. However, do maintain your morals. I don’t want you to marry because you have to or because you didn’t know what you were doing. Anyway,” he had continued, “if you do get into trouble, remember we will bail you out.”

My Indian brethren had differing points of view about how I should behave. Some felt I should be the shy recluse while others felt I should mix and socialize. I lay low for the first semester, summing up the situation, absorbing the environment of dorm life and my classes. I was pleased when American grad students invited me to go for a “drink” after the library closed at 11 p.m. one Friday. Everyone ordered cocktails or beer, but I ordered a Coca-Cola. I did not know one drink from another. I had never seen liquor in my life. All I knew about alcoholic beverages was that they caused intoxication and made a person obnoxious. I was content with my Coke and nobody suggested anything else. Deep in my heart I was apprehensive about how my American friends would behave after drinking. I had heard stories in India about American “immorality.” However, after a couple of drinks and discussions revolving around advisers, professors, departmental and national politics, we all departed for our respective abodes, very relaxed and happy for the companionship. Frequent experiences like this enhanced my horizons. Like my fellow graduate students, I worked hard all week and looked forward to weekends of interaction with other students—Indian and American. Saturdays usually revolved around the mundane chores of laundry and shopping. In the evening we went, in groups of seven or eight, to the movies and had dinner with friends. Indian and American families frequently invited me out for dinner and occasionally took me to the theater or an opera.

We were considered not only students but also representatives of India. I participated in radio and television programs and spoke to Rotary groups, Lions Clubs and other civic organizations about my homeland. I loved being an “ambassador” of India in Tompkins and surrounding counties. I was told I was “exotic,” thanks largely to my saris and the Punjabi dress I wore. We Indian students did a lot in those years to remove the negative stereotypes and prejudices that Americans had about our country. I feel proud that we contributed to the high regard and appreciation most Americans have toward India today.

The few Indian women on U.S. campuses during those early years were primarily from institutes of higher learning in India or wives of graduate students. They usually didn’t mix much with the younger crowd, Indian or American. The more conservative Indian students—male and female—remained isolated from the Americans. Others mixed and made the best of their stay on campus.

The hotel administration students were perhaps the most gregarious. Usually well-financed by their parents, they were also paid during practical training in institutions like Cornell’s Statler Inn. It was these students who, much to the chagrin of our conservative Indian brothers, taught me to distinguish between different wines and to appreciate a good steak. They helped me get my summer job working as a hostess at the Statler. They took me to parties—and they protected me.

Indian students on the whole have done very well academically too. The students of the Sixties and early Seventies had an excellent command of the English language. The British system of education, under which most of these students had studied, had taught them grammar and composition. Initially they had problems with the unfamiliar objective-type tests but because of practice in learning by rote they were able to master that also. They were partly motivated by family izzat or honor, which depended greatly on how well a young person did. They were also anxious not to disappoint those who had invested in them.

I have visited some of my fellow grad students who are all holding top positions in their respective fields and contributing to the development of India. Hearing their success stories makes me feel like the odd one out of that batch—I was among the very few who opted to stay on in the United States.

Usha Helweg is a part-time instructor and a research administrator at Western Michigan University. She and her husband, Arthur Helweg, were recently in India on a Smithsonian Institution grant doing research on the effect of emigration on India.

By Simran Singh

I need not have been neurotic the night before. I was taking my first examination at Stanford University, one of America’s most respected institutions. I relaxed as the professor, grinning slightly, handed out the papers. “I hope you spend as much time answering these questions as I did thinking them up. Good luck,” he said. “I’ll see you all on Friday.”

And he walked out.

I was awed by the trust Stanford places in its students. Unmonitored, they are allowed to take their exams wherever they like. You can bring in a Coke and a bag of french fries, perch your feet on a table and finish your paper in class. Or you can take it home or to the coffee house or even to the library and bring it back after three hours.

You can cheat too, since there is no one around to check on you. But the Honor Code that all Stanford students are required to sign morally binds them not to cheat.

This “to thine own self be true” policy that puts complete trust in its students is one of the university’s unusual features. Another is that it is students who evaluate teachers—at the end of the quarter, on his lectures, clarity, ability to arouse interest and accessibility.

Classes, too, are different from anything I was used to in India. In centrally heated conference-type rooms, the professor is dressed casually in an open-necked T-shirt. He lectures perched on his desk, his chin on one knee. He insists that his students call him by his first name. I found it stimulating to be so relaxed with some of the best known specialists in their fields.

The faculty at Stanford, which includes 13 Nobel laureates and four Pulitzer Prize winners, takes its responsibility pretty seriously. They may eat lunch in class with students and they may use four-letter words, yet your teachers will sit up all night with you before term papers are due. These world-famous professors and writers sit not in academic ivory towers, but bent over their typewriters with their office door open to welcome you. Most are very generous with their phone numbers and invitations to drop in for advice or for a beer.

Professors turned friends are your greatest critics. They spend almost as much time analyzing your term paper as you spent writing it. Comments can vary anywhere from “You’ll never make it,” to “Yes, you have what it takes.” But while your paper might not make any point at all, you are never shown up in class, however ignorant you may seem.

“The only dumb question,” we were told, “is the unasked one.” And you can ask your adviser about anything—your career, your personal life, your finances or the lack of them. You can demand answers to the most awkward questions.

One common question concerns part-time jobs. Many students have to—or want to—earn as they learn. Often you can earn your bread and butter (and beer and postage stamps) through teaching or research assistantships to which your adviser assigns you. The first commandment of the Stanford budget is that a student once admitted to the university will not be disqualified because of shortage of funds. Depending on his proficiency, a student may be assigned to teach a junior class, grade papers or do research work. Part-time jobs are usually available in libraries, computer centers and cafeterias.

In any case, it is unbelievably easy to support oneself, for job opportunities are many and the average pay is approximately four dollars an hour. And with the secondhand turnover, you can buy a TV for 10 dollars, a bike for 25 and a car for 250.

At the undergraduate level, required courses make up less than half a student’s program. He is free to choose and try out the rest. By designing his own major with courses as varied as film aesthetics, acoustics and physiotherapy, the student can specialize later in what he discovers to be his real interest. He also has the choice of studying French history in Paris or Third World problems in Nairobi: Stanford has campuses in different parts of the world where students can spend a year with all the university facilities at their disposal.

In most of the required courses, students are meant to work under the same conditions they will experience after graduation; they are forced to make independent decisions and live with the responsibilities they have accepted. Journalism students, for instance, are required to choose a beat off-campus. It could be health, education, refugees or crime, but it means actually being out there, spending as much time in a hospital or a police station as in the library. It means developing a nose for news and following the scent all the way—until you have your story. The idea is to wean you away from the protective cocoon of university life into the career you have chosen; to make you accept, and perhaps enjoy, the excitement and the tension you will have to live with.

As part of their training, journalism and business school students get together, the former interviewing the latter. The encounter is recorded on videotape and then played back to be analyzed and improved upon.

An Indian student can probably get much more out of Stanford than an American student because there is much less that he takes for granted. Because many of the nonacademic courses are always available to Americans, they sometimes tend to ignore them. But most foreign students enthusiastically grasp the chance of learning jazz dance, fencing, car mechanics, aerobics, body massage or five different types of martial arts.

The libraries at Stanford are magical. There are over 20 research libraries in addition to smaller ones in most departments. The Meyer Undergraduate and Green Graduate libraries alone “provide 68 miles of shelving, enough for more than 2.8 million volumes, and seating for 1,700 readers,” writes Peter C. Allen in “Stanford: From the Foothills to the Bay.” To give students even greater access to books, the Gutenberg Express joins the campuses of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley through a daily shuttle service.

Libraries soon become addictive. You can spend hours studying beside a pleasant potted plant, undisturbed. You can analyze the Indian Emergency in the microfilm section, drop by at Green library to read The Times of India or India Today, or study in the Hoover Institution library where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote his memoirs. Those involved in serious research use the library computers: From one database they can get a printout of all the published material on a subject. Some students have video display terminals in their rooms wired to the main computer on campus.

Punch the right code and your computer will give you the day’s news, mail from a friend at MIT or even tell you a dirty joke. Some students become so addicted to computers that they forgo food and drink and sleep in the Center for Educational Research at Stanford that houses LOTS, the Low Overhead Timesharing System. It is open 24 hours a day.

Many professors give serious students free access to their private libraries. Departments can usually arrange for almost any kind of material you might need in your research or get an expert to come and speak on your subject. Students are allowed as much funding as may be necessary to justify their research. For instance, “The engineering research at Stanford,” Allen tells us, “now runs about $25 million a year, involving some 200 grants and contracts. The range is universal, from microscopic integrated circuits to all of outer space.”

An examination in the United States is not an unusual experience for a student from India. Since you have to put in three hours of work at home for every one hour in class throughout the year, you don’t have to spend the nights before exams cursing yourself and seeing the clock tick away mockingly. In any case, the final exam counts for only 20 percent of your grade. The rest depends on class participation, term papers and your consistent progress through the year. If you are not well during an exam or are busy with another course, you can arrange to take it later. The Stanford policy is to see how much a student can get out of a course, not how much he can put on a piece of paper in three hours. The atmosphere at Stanford and the facilities available make you want to study and pursue education for education’s sake, not for examination’s sake.

A Stanford degree also buttresses your career chances. “Rating of academic quality is an inexact science at best,” writes Peter Allen in his book. “But the most recent surveys taken for the most part among faculty peers across the country offer a preponderance of evidence as to the distinction of Stanford’s professors. They rank the schools of education and business first in the nation, engineering and medicine second, and law third; and they place 17 of the university’s departments among the top five in their discipline.”

Most graduating students already have assured jobs before they leave the university. Indian graduates are mostly from the engineering department and most are absorbed into Silicon Valley in the heart of which lies Stanford.

An amusing scenario takes place once a year on campus: This is the Job Fair where Lockheed, Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild and other top companies send executives to recruit Stanford students. In their well-pressed, three-piece suits these executives hand the students their catalogs and brochures and make attractive job offers. The students in T-shirts, jeans and slippers chuck these catalogs into their backpacks to think about later.

Life outside the classroom is casual yet demanding, hard work but full of surprises.

Graduate students who live on campus have a choice of high-rise buildings, or low-rise, two-bedroom apartments, both built with consideration for the students who will be using them. In either case you have to learn to live with a roommate who might turn out to be a friend in need or a fiend indeed depending on whether your friends, phone calls or all-night typing get on his or her nerves.

Stanford is a very bikeable campus, many of its streets shut off to automobiles. Along with the students zipping by on their ten speeds, also on his bicycle is Donald Kennedy, the eighth president of Stanford who has three degrees from Harvard University. Every morning the soft-spoken president runs 10 kilometers; he invites any student who would like to join him.

For many a shy foreign student, the Bechtel International Center is a good place to begin finding his feet and his friends on this 3,560-hectare campus. The ivy-covered I-Center has weekly coffees to break in foreign students and their spouses, language classes, international cooking, folk dances, a giant-size TV and a very, very friendly staff. While their homelands might be at war, many an Iraqi and Iranian student become friends here.

Once you’ve made your friends, life on campus can be one of the most fulfilling experiences of your life. The general enthusiastic feeling is, “I just can’t get enough out of my days here.” Allen quotes a student: “You have to work pretty hard to be bored at Stanford. Almost anything you want to do you can find some club, team, organization or friend to do it with.”

Almost every day there are plays, talks, concerts, all-night folk dancing, parties. Sometimes, Joan Baez who lives down the road drops by to sing. The university shows at least 10 different films a week. The variety extends from contemporary hits to French and Italian classics to history-making films.

One of the biggest events of the year is the annual football game between Stanford and Berkeley (a university that Stanford students disparagingly refer to as “second best in California”). Tickets for the big game are sold out months in advance. Closer to the game there is black marketing.

Then there is the coffee house, a cozy little hideout in the center of campus. It has tough wooden benches and serves the finest coffee. Even students who don’t have the time find themselves here. You can be sure of a couple of hours’ amusement. Talented students sing, dance, perform a play for free. Or if you’re the kind that can keep his cool amid noise and music and dancing student waitresses, you could write your thesis here or pore over a game of Scrabble.

During the beginning of my first quarter at Stanford, sitting with my book on a coffee house table, I was taken aback to see a noisy group of about 20 men and women rushing in, wrapped in bedsheets. They were obviously wearing no clothes under their sheet wraps. That was my introduction to a “Toga party,” usually held at the beginning of the quarter to initiate freshmen.

The coffee house closes at 11 p.m. but if your spirits still strain to be high, the place to head for then is The Oasis, one of the 10 most frequented student spots in the United States. A giant-size pitcher of beer and a bag of unshelled peanuts (the shells you simply throw on the floor) see you through till 3 a.m. when it shuts. Then it’s time for a 24-hour coffee shop like Denny’s.

Of course, the beer sessions are limited to weekends. The rest of the week is hard, hard work. One of the advantages of being at Stanford is that almost every other student knows a good deal about his subject. Conversation on every level is enlightening. Depending on who your friends are, you could come out with a fairly good knowledge of biochemistry, computer science or heart transplants.

Sometime during the year a group of students, to create a response to Third World malnutrition, organize a fast that they ask all of Stanford to participate in. The fast is to make well-fed First Worlders realize what hunger feels like.

Many student dormitories and houses also organize courses to increase awareness of Third World issues. Hammarskjöld House, for instance, holds a course on how the Western press distorts Third World events; the discussions often end in fierce debate till late at night.

“A comfortable university,” Richard Lyman, Stanford’s seventh president had said, “is virtually a contradiction in terms…we exist to disturb and activate the minds of men and women.”

For the Indian student in the United States many values change. So do impressions. Most come expecting all American kids to take drugs, all American women to be easy game.

And yes, sex on campus does exist as on any other campus in the United States. But the attitude is not one of denial or secrecy. Instead men and women students live together openly, there is free contraceptive counseling; gay people have their own clubs.

Crime exists too on this idyllic campus. Bicycle theft is an accomplished art at Stanford, and you just resign yourself to the fact that at least once in three years, you’re going to find your bike gone. More serious crimes like rape are being combated with a round-the-clock police vigil at different parts of campus.

The university runs a service after 8 p.m. that sends escorts up to one kilometer off campus to see women safely home.

But being in a small town like Palo Alto, Stanford is a fairly safe campus. It is a campus that slowly spoils you. Its winters are gentle like east coast springs. Nestling between hills and bay, the university offers both mountains and beaches as recreation. The Spanish architecture of the university is breathtaking. Standing in its great green oval, an awed lump in his throat, the new student for the first time gazes at the noble buildings with their intricately carved columns, the clear blue skies and golden rolling hills. Very pleasant surroundings for what architect Frank Lloyd Wright called one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States.

And in April, when winter gear has just been packed away, doors and windows are left open to let fresh air and the smell of soft grass wander in, Stanford reserves a day to celebrate spring in its own unique way. From early evening till dawn an entire street is shut off to vehicles. For miles you can hear a superpower band thundering out Stanford’s favorite rhythms while thousands and thousands of students pushing against each other dance the night away. Beer and popcorn are on the house this spring night. This is also the night when the entire graduating senior class is saying its goodbye to the university.

It isn’t goodbye forever, though. The Stanford Alumni Association has more than 50,000 members who keep in touch with their school through newsletters, conferences and summer programs. The khaki envelope with the university stamp on the left corner falls through the post box in different countries for many, many years.

Simran Singh has recently returned from the United States with a Master in Journalism from Stanford University. During her course, she reported for The Stanford Daily and was a copy editor for The Alumni Almanac.

Originally published in August 1982


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