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Students from India studying IST

IST students from India
IST students from India, from left, Adithi Shetty, Priyanka Chawan and Snehal Khandkar.

Before traveling 8,700 miles from Mumbai, India to study at Penn State Hazleton, three students sampled American culture. They practiced English since childhood, listened to Linkin Park and Eminem, read books like the Da Vinci Code and watched more movies made in Hollywood than Bollywood. Since arriving for the first semester, however, they’ve encountered co-ed dorms, Taco Bell and football.

When asked to explain the game that draws crowds to Beaver Stadium, Priyanka Chawan and Adithi Shetty punted the question to Snehal Khandkar, who has watched football on television. “Everyone on the field stands around the ball, someone grabs it, and quarterback gets it and it’s touchdown,” Khandkar said. Although they’re just starting to understand football, the three young women already have an impressive knowledge of their major subject, Information Sciences and Technology or IST.

Chawan and Shetty earned degrees in IST from Thakur College of Science and Commerce at the University Mumbai, and Khandkar completed two of the three years needed to complete her degree at Thakur, where the trio met before coming to Hazleton.

With computers and telephones bridging the gap between East and West and American companies offering customer service from outposts in India, workers trained in English and IST are in demand. “It’s very basic, the most important field right now,” said Khandkar, who would like to find work as a Web designer or network tech. Shetty also fancies Web design or Internet security, while Chawan would like to be an IST project manager.

Although Chawan and Shetty have degrees from India and Khandkar would have earned hers in just one more year, they were willing to transfer as juniors to Penn State Hazleton. Shetty said Penn State Hazleton offered more management courses along with IST classes. Chawan said Penn State is a “known university.”

“That,” Khandkar added, “was the main reason why we actually enrolled,” Khandkar said.

Having a degree from an American university offers cache in India, Dr. Gary Lawler, the chancellor of Penn State Hazleton, said. “They go by a lot of the national rankings to find a university that is well ranked.”

Penn State offers that worldwide ranking, and Lawler went to India two years ago to help develop programs that allow Indian students to study at Penn State. Lawler traveled with Dr. Samir Shah, a native of India and an IST professor at Penn State York, who began an exchange program with Indian students at the York campus four years ago. The program expanded to other Penn State campuses this year.

Chawan, Shetty and Khandkar said they have visited with another Indian student studying at Penn State Schuylkill, and expect to get together will all eight students participating in the program now.

Lawler said agreements are being set with four or five other universities in India so that soon 10 to 15 students a year might arrive at Penn State Hazleton through the India Initiative.  “This has been a really good opportunity for us,” Lawler said.

Traveling to India with Shah, Lawler said, helped him to experience what colleges are like there. “The real purpose was for me to get a better sense of Indian culture and where these students were coming from,” he said.

Lawler noticed that students in India spend more time in class, sometimes from 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. five days a week, than they do at American universities. Women and men were kept apart. “They are very separate, or at least at the colleges I was at. The female dorm was on campus, the male dorm a mile away,” he said.

Students in India primarily take courses in their major, which is why they can earn a bachelor’s degree in three years in IST. Engineering is a four-year program in India.

To transfer from India after two years and complete a bachelor’s degree at Penn State, the students needed to add general education courses in arts, humanities and even physical education. “We’ve got that prescribed as part of the agreement,” Lawler said.

Chawan, Khandkar and Shetty, who typically were in class from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Thakur College said they increased their course loads to take classes like physics, economics, sociology, statistics and even yoga to meet requirements of Penn State. By their last semester at Thakur College, they were studying practically all day. “We were busier there definitely,” Shetty said.

This semester, each of the three students is taking elective courses in addition to their IST classes. Chawan, who said she never reads novels, just school texts and newspapers, said she likes aspects of the American legal system better than India’s now that she is taking a criminal justice course, but she doesn’t see the need for studying courses outside her major. Shetty told Chawan that she had a different view of electives. “In a way, it’s also good,” said Shetty, a fan of Dan Brown novels. This semester, she is studying world religion as an elective.

The three students have been following the news back home, including the cricket and soccer scores, by reading The Times of India and other Indian newspapers online. They read about President Obama’s trip to India in November, but said they are more interested in their studies than politics. “We basically run away from it. It’s not our thing,” Khandkar said.

Shetty said she would like to improve life in her native country, but apart from government. “I hope to bring about some change, but from the outside,” she said.

While studying at Thakur College, all three of the students lived at home, where they still could lean on their parents for help. “We have to do everything on our own,” Khandkar said.

Asked if they felt homesick, Khandkar, Chawan and Shetty responded with three yeses. Their homesickness subsided, they said, after their first two months in Hazleton. “The worst is we have to eat cafeteria food,” Khandkar said. Shetty said in Mumbai she and her friends ate pizza and hamburgers occasionally. “Now we are so tired of this food, we crave home food,” she said. They won’t taste home cooking soon.

“Indian students didn’t get to go home for Thanksgiving,” Lawler said. Finding places for international students to reside in the community during breaks from school was among the requirements that Penn State Hazleton met before becoming eligible to accept foreign students in April. In addition to Chawan, Khandkar and Shetty who arrived through the India initiative, seven other international students study at Penn State Hazleton this year, Lawler said.

Chawan, Khandkar and Shetty said they might not return to India during winter break, either. Roundtrip airfare is upwards of $1,700 during the holiday weeks, according to Expedia.com. To economize, the Indian students also might remain in Hazleton during the summer when they could take courses and trim the time needed to complete their bachelor’s degrees from two years to 1½ years.

Shetty, Chawan and Khandkar, though, are learning to feel comfortable in Hazleton. They talk to their parents every day using Skype, an Internet site that allows free conversations. They share a dorm room. “We have each other,” Shetty said. Khandkar added:  “We are like a family.”

Other students befriend them and have been surprised by how well they speak English. “It has really been a great experience,” Chawan said.

Shetty said the American students she met aren’t as worried about their studies as students were in India. “They have other things on their mind,” she said.

Students and teachers are more informal with each other in Hazleton than India, where Khandkar said she called her professors “ma’am” or “sir.” “Here, they go by name. We still can’t do that,” she said.

All three students developed a bond with their faculty adviser, Senior Instructor in IST Barbara Brazon. “She’s the most amazing person,” Khandkar said. “So understanding,” added Shetty. “We see her every day,” Khandkar said.

After leaving a city of about 14 million, or about 10,000 people for each student on campus, Khandkar, Shetty and Chawan haven’t minded staying outside of Hazleton, which has a population of 23,000. “The city we come from is very loud,” said Khandkar, while Shetty said she liked the “calm and peace” of Hazleton.

Most days, they work out at the gym on campus. There’s no television in their room, and they don’t watch much TV in the lounges. But they have gone to movies and been to Wilkes-Barre, so far. Khandkar took a bus trip to Pittsburgh, where she ate at an India restaurant. She would like to visit Florida and see the Harry Potter theme park dedicated to the main character in the series of novels of which she is a fan.

All of the young women want to see more of America. They mentioned New York as a possible stop. Penn State can help. Trips to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are scheduled to leave from campus this year, Dwayne Hilton, the director of students and engagement services, said. “These trips are open to all students, but we encourage international students to attend,” said Hilton, who introduced Khandkar, Shetty and Chawan to a family from India that lives in the Hazleton area.

 All three of the students discovered that the spices of Mexican food remind them of the zing of Indian food. “We never tried tacos. They were delicious,” Shetty said. Khandkar added, “We love Taco Bell.”

And they’ve been shopping at malls, which they say aren’t much different from those in Mumbai. They bought different clothing, however, while getting ready for winter. “Lots of coats, gloves, scarves,” said Shetty, who had never seen snow fall. Compared to Hazleton’s climate, “Mumbai is totally opposite,” Khandkar said. In Mumbai, temperatures range from 61 degrees to about 90 degrees and about three times more rain falls yearly than in Hazleton, where temperatures can swing from 0 degrees to 90 degrees.

To be admitted to college in Hazleton, the three students needed good grades in India, where students start kindergarten at 3 and graduate from high school at 16. They took two years of junior college before attending Thakur College, where students receive percentage grades rather than letter grades. “We had to get all the credits. We (couldn’t) have any drop outs,” Chawan said.

She, Khandkar and Shetty also had to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL and demonstrate that they had financing to attend Penn State Hazleton.

All three students said that their parents are making sacrifices to send them to Hazleton, and Shetty also is taking a loan so they feel an obligation to make good on the opportunity that their parents provided to them. “They just expect me to study,” Shetty said. Chawan said her parents remind her to study during their conversations. “You have to focus on that,” they tell her. Khandkar said she doesn’t feel as much pressure from her parents. “They want me to be kind of cool, but study as well,” she said.

While all three of them believe they will return to India, they would enjoy working in the United States for a few years after finishing their degrees in Hazleton. “Since I just got here, I would like to live here,” said Shetty, although if asked the question in five years – when the students’ visas expire – she said she might answer differently. “Right now, I actually want to stay,” Khandkar said.

Chawan said definitely plans to return to her homeland. “I want to take some experience from there to India,” she said. “I just want to be a good person and grab hold of the possibilities.”

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