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The Great US Education Circus

My son recently completed his MS in Environmental Engineering from Georgia Tech, Atlanta in the USA. Given the current pandemic scene in the USA, we were not sure if at all the graduation ceremony would be conducted in person or virtually like it was done by the IITs in India.  Fortunately for us, his University opted for an in person graduation ceremony adhering all the COVID protocols. They staggered the event over 3 sessions and conducted the ceremony in their football stadium ensuring mandatory distancing and mask norms.

Since we could not make it, we were fortunate that my cousin and a close friend from school, based out of Georgia made it on our behalf, while we got to attend it virtually live via a Youtube link.

Just as the US prefers to invert everything starting from driving to the left hand side to the electric switches being pushed up to be switched off, at the graduation ceremony too, the speech given by the guest of honour is called the “commencement speech”. The commencement speech is supposed to be a high point of the ceremony as the speaker shares what brought him to where he is now. Some of the speeches have left a lasting impression and have even gone viral. (Click on the link  for the best graduation speeches, including the one by Steve Jobs: Stanford, 2005). The explanation here being that this ceremony marks the beginning of the next phase in your life! Another interesting thing, we realised was about the degree being handed over on stage, guess what? For all the pomp and ceremony that the US Universities are known for, the smartly enrolled paper handed out to the students as they file pass the guest of honour, is just a faux degree.

Unlike in the case of top education institutions like IITs or BITS in India, wherein the actual degree is handed over on the graduation day, in the US, the real degree is posted only a couple of months later. The apparent reasoning for this is the convenience as the administrative paperwork to get all things verified takes some time and the students are in a rush to push off to the next thing once the course work gets submitted.

Another observation while going through the ceremony was the number of Chinese students across different streams. It seemed like China had outsourced grad and post grad education to the US. This the Chinese do by providing handsome grants to colleges and also the state sponsoring students for higher education with a commitment to return on completion of the course. This model seems like a win-win as not only do the Chinese get to accelerate the knowledge but also get the qualified students to return and contribute to their nations progress.

During the course of my son’s admission process, we realised the importance of drafting the Statement Of Purpose (SOP). To make your application stand out, besides covering the educational laurels, it needs to also focus on the extra curriculars and especially on the adversities that one has overcome. The SOP also needs to bring out the reason for the specific area being chosen along with why that university or the college. Writing the SOPas well as advising on the college admission has become a big business in India. Overseas education advisors or consultants’ charges depend upon their star status. Rock star consultants charge  upwards of a couple of lacs for assessing your profile and guiding you to tailor make the SOP basis the recommended colleges to be applied for. This not only increases your chances for an admission but many times also helps land up with some kind of financial sponsorship in the form of Teaching Assistantship (TA)/ Research Assistantship (RA) or scholarship. They also guide you on education loan financiers in case you fail to land up with any financial assistance.We were lucky that thanks to guidance from his seniors, my son had researched the details to make it through the great US college admission circus. He built a suitable profile by participating in extracurricular projects as well as opting for courses beyond his curriculum. Besides this he cleared the prerequisite GRE, TOEFL with the cut off scores necessary to apply to the top colleges. This saved us a lot of trouble.

Having landed an admission, on arrival some of the challenges faced by Indian students include the teaching methodology. While in India, the rote system takes you places, but in the US it is all about application of knowledge. It takes time for even some of the smartest students ( by Indian standards) to adapt to this. This methodology involves continuous assessment, as students are given assignments every alternate week and the performance in these all adds up to your CGPA (Cumulative Grade point Average). Even before the pandemic struck, their methodology allowed for an “Honour “ system wherein students could opt to appear for a test from their home. For the post graduate MS course, especially in Engineering streams such as Environmental Engineering, if students plan well, they can manage to accelerate their graduation from 2 years involving 4 semesters to even 3 semesters by opting for a research route. This also opens up a window for opting for a PhD down the line. For STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) courses, post degree students have an option to apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension of  24-month period of temporary training that directly relates to an F-1 student’s program of study in an approved STEM field. This enables the students to get work experience relevant to their field and also helps recoup some of the cost of education. On landing a job,  the students on OPT, need to apply for an Employment Authorisation Document (EAD) which allows them to work while maintaining their F-1 Visa status (i.e Academic Student visa). 

This year being an election year, Donal Trump had taken it upon himself to drive his anti immigration election agenda hard. As my son set to go about the over complicated routine right in the midst of the pandemic, we had quite a few anxious moments at every step. We had heard of horror stories like in the case of one of his college mates who did well to complete all the steps in time, but was in for a surprise as the US Post lost his EAD which was mailed to him by the immigration authorities. This set him back, as he was advised to once again reapply. Fortunately things went smoothly for my son as he navigated from getting the permission for the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for his summers, then managed to get a placement via online job fairs. Besides all this, he also had to navigate through his passport renewal with the Indian consular office while being abroad before applying to for the EAD.  

So if your son/daughter is looking forward to applying to the US colleges for higher education, brace yourself for a roller coaster ride on the great US education circus as you help them research for the courses and the right colleges.Besides this, also get ready to go through the grind of uncertainty over  policy of the government in office towards visa; and of course not to forget the volatility of $/INR. Cheers !

Acknowledgements : My Friend Ashish Parulekar and Sheetal Nagle for being a solid member of my blog support team.
P.S To read my other blogs on Cricketing / Corporate Tales, Start up stories, Covid Times, Friends, Family and Marriages go to the Home Page

Published by Salil Datar

Eager beaver , enthusiastic but amateur blogger !!

5 thoughts on “The Great US Education Circus

  1. it is a guide fr students going in these exceptionally times. and ur being thoightful at every step methodically has made all the diffeŕenc.
    nissim is lucky to have both of u as gr8 parents


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