USF group cushions transition from India
By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
As Alok Buch prepared to board a plane for the first time in his 24 years, his sari-clad mother wept. His father, who once dreamed of going to college in America himself, was silent.
Would their only son, about to fly from Bombay, India, to the faraway University of South Florida, be all right? Would everything be strange for him in America?
The Buches need not have worried.
After a 22-hour journey, Buch was met at Tampa International Airport at 1 a.m. by members of the Students of India Association. They fed him dal and rice, and gave him the ins-and-outs of USF in Hindi. They arranged an apartment for him, got him groceries and took him to musical and cultural events. And on weekend afternoons, they provided his favorite: cricket matches, played on the grassy intermural field.
Just like home.
Although there are many reasons a student from India might choose USF -- the strength of its engineering school, warm weather that is comparable to home -- the pull of the Students of India Association is strong. At USF, a firm cushion has been created for Indian students by Indian students, making the transition not just easy but downright comfortable.
There are 533 Indian nationals attending USF this year. That's far more than other countries represented in USF's foreign student population, including China, Colombia, Venezuela and Belize.
The number of Indian nationals at USF even surpasses that of the larger University of Florida, which has 473.
The efforts of the SIA "helped the decision to come here," said Buch, a first-year industrial engineering graduate student.
"The word gets out that this is a happy place for the students to be," said David Austell, the university's director of International Student and Scholar Services.
When USF's SIA was started in 1985 by mathematics professor Dr. A. Vijay Rao, there were only three students. For many years, SIA was a culture club. They celebrated Indian holidays and hosted India week, waving flags of India and distributing "Kiss Me I'm Indian" bumper stickers in the campus courtyard.
The group evolved.
"Each committee would add their touch, and all these little things would add up," said Vibha Dhawan, a longtime member.
Sudarsan Padmanabhan, the organization's president, started the grocery program this year with community donations and help from NS Food & Gifts, an Indian grocery in Town 'N Country.
Bags of rice, yellow split peas (dal), wheat flour, cooking oil and salt were handed out to nearly 60 new students.
"Someone in SIA had helped me," said Padmanabhan, who came to USF in 1999 for a doctorate in philosophy. Then he felt the need to help somebody else. "I thought it was my duty."
Duty has its headaches. Sometimes Indian nationals call the day before they hope to be picked up from the airport, said Padmanabhan, shaking his head.
The typical Indian national at USF is a male graduate student studying engineering, Austell said.
Most likely, he is middle to upper-middle class and grew up with maids working in his home. He also grew up idolizing cricket stars and plastering his bedroom walls with posters.
Why come to America to study? Some hope to boost their marketability with an extra degree. Others want to obtain a work permit and, eventually, U.S. residency.
Also, said first-year graduate student Bhavesh Goswami, there's the lore. "It's a kind of a trend," he said. "The guys who came here two, three years back had great stories to share."
USF does no recruiting in India. Ravi Kumar, 24, first heard about the school and the student association from a classmate in college in southern India who was planning to go to USF.
"I just followed him," Kumar said.
Each July, SIA reserves 30 to 40 apartments at the Campus Walk complex, a quick bike ride from the school. SIA also lobbies the school for help with funding. "It has become a lesson in American civics," Austell said.
Despite the amenities, there are drawbacks.
Some students complain of isolation. Years ago, SIA tried to join programs that help students assimilate into the community, including Habitat for Humanity. They held mixers with on-campus Latin organizations, said Monica Bassi, a former SIA member who graduated in 1999.
Reaching into the mainstream can be "harder to do with a powerful organization on campus like the Students of Indian Association, where home language is spoken, home culture and home ways are perpetuated more than if the student was out with American friends," Austell said.
The university tries to step in, encouraging participation in such programs as American Mentors, which pairs foreign and local students for trips to Ybor City, Channelside and Clearwater Beach. "There has to be some kind of balance," Austell said.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, nearly 80 Indians playing cricket covered the intramural fields at USF. Buch, on Team Phoenix, whacked the ball with his bat and ran.
He recently was elected SIA's next president.
"If someone helps me, I need to help someone else. It's a continuing tradition," he said.
He got his Florida driver's license and is now planning to buy a car. He said he has to be ready.
"Students will start coming for the fall," he said.
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