In Mar. 2008, I was one of 245,617 aspirants in Mumbai preparing to take the Common Entrance Test for Engineering. However, reading the acceptance email from Harvard that March morning changed everything. I was no longer a statistic. Harvard, the exclusive, prestigious Harvard, wanted me!
Being a student in India is very different from being a student in the U.S. In the Indian education system your sense of achievement is intertwined with your academic performance. Exams are usually out of a 100 points, and the students who get the highest percentage points get into the best colleges. With an ever-increasing population, competition is cutthroat. In the U.S., college applications are all about differentiating yourself with your extracurriculars while maintaining a high academic standard. However, being a successful Indian student means having impeccable academics, period.
I was an aspiring engineer in junior college (which is equivalent to junior and senior year of high school). Getting into Harvard made me question whether I wanted to commit to a technical school, and consequently a technical degree. The person who interviewed me for Harvard had only just graduated from Harvard in 2007.
He spoke about the amazing resources that I would have as a Harvard student: the world-class athletic facilities, the company of a student body that would include Olympians, musicians and actors alike, the opportunity to take humanities classes with humanities concentrators and an environment in which I could truly challenge myself. I, a prospective engineering student, was sold on the idea of a liberal arts education, which is impossible to pursue in India.
Speaking to my friends back home, I sense a certain frustration and discontentment with the higher education system in India. Exams are held in the middle and at the end of every semester and these exams determine the GPA. On paper, it seems comparable to a semester in the U.S., but that could not be farther from the truth. I hear that attending college day-to-day feels like a chore, there are no term-time assignments (papers or problem sets in Harvard-speak), lecturers are disinterested and discrepancies in lab reports can be “fixed” by paying the friendly college peon. Skipping lectures is normal and students sometimes sign-in for their absent counterparts, a practice termed as “proxy.” I have heard horror stories of proxies being discovered resulting in the penalization or even suspension of the involved parties.
Exams present an enormous challenge of their own. Some colleges in Mumbai are private and they conduct their own examinations. However, the majority of engineering colleges in Mumbai are affiliated with a central authority called Mumbai University. All such colleges take University exams. Answer papers from one college are sent to another for correction to ensure impartiality. Loss of answer papers and general confusion are rampant in this process. A friend of mine was certain that he had done really well on his computer science exam. To his dismay, however, his result sheet indicated that he had failed. He petitioned to have his exam re-evaluated. It was only after he had been forced to re-take the exam the following semester that the re-evaluated results were sent to him—he had passed with flying colors the first time around.
Higher education in India is a constant struggle against the system. However, I would argue that India produces some of the world’s most brilliant graduates. Students in the Indian education system succeed not because of their education but in spite of it. They teach themselves by reading in textbooks what their professors failed to teach. They overcome administrative hurdles unimaginable by American students to get what they want.
In contrast, higher education in the U.S. is cycle of tests, assignments, and deadlines culminating in the final exam, all every well organized. These classes, along with extracurricular commitments and jobs, create an American college semester. It is, in one word, exhausting. I have worked harder at Harvard than I have ever worked in my life. I certainly put in more work daily than my counterparts do back in India. But I enjoy every minute of it, even the excruciating nights before a problem set is due. I value assignments that challenge me, a variety of extracurriculars, and caring professors, because to my friends in India these are luxuries. I almost feel that I push myself at Harvard as much as I do because I owe it to my friends in the Indian education system to make the most of my Harvard experience.
In conclusion, I chose to come to Harvard because I wanted to have the opportunity to engage in cutting-edge research as a sophomore, learn from professors who are passionate about their students, row on the Charles as part of the novice crew team, learn Spanish, and pursue my interest in technology at the same time. Would I have had a less successful career had I pursued higher education in India? The answer is an emphatic “no,” because maneuvering through college in India would have equipped me with a skin thick enough to overcome any setbacks in the future.
Madhura Narawane ’12 is an engineering sciences concentrator in Pforzheimer House.