Each fall, thousands of students arrive with dreams and two suitcases each, ready to study in colleges and universities all across America. They are international students that add $45 billion to the country’s economy annually. Then, surviving the peculiarities of American life, untangling the red tape, and managing the wait, many remain, often contributing to the country through job creation, innovation, and research. Dr. Rajika Bhandari was one of those students, and as she argues in her must-read book, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, the impact of international students on America is as substantial as the obstacles they face.
In 1992, Bhandari followed her fiancé, Vikram, to Raleigh to earn her doctorate in psychology at North Carolina State University. Initially, she was hesitant about being faced with the post-doc choice of staying in the U.S. or returning to India. Plus, she feared there were just too many choices to be made in the U.S. She was right about both.
With hindsight humor, Bhandari relates cultural blunders and differences as a new student in America. Asking for more catsup for her pizza. Assuming hot dog relish is a minced side salad. Not knowing how to use a computer (a necessity). She also embraces yard and church sales, becomes an expert coupon-clipper, and marvels at the extensive choices at her local Food Lion grocery. She stumbles upon American racism, encounters Southern Baptists, and is grateful for the generosity of both the American woman whom Vikram tutored and the Shahs at their Comfort Inn on a treacherously snowy night.
But the most daunting aspect of life in America? The method of education.
“American professors taught us as if we were coconspirators, allies in the pursuit of knowledge: they advised, guided, and consulted,” she writes. “My Indian professors, by contrast, had commanded us from the front of the classroom, frowning and glowering, hell-bent on making us master the basics and, in the process, squelching our love for the subject at hand.”
Meeting students that were starting or finishing their degrees later in life, calling professors by their first names, and seeing an adult wearing braces, Bhandari writes she “was learning that, as with many things in America, it was never too late to do something different, to change course…America, I was discovering, was a land of reinvention.”
Six years later, she earned her Ph.D. and followed Vikram to Silicon Valley, where she discovered jobs for her were few. She did find a job, but because of the U.S. government’s predilection for grand hoops and prickly hurdles, it took six months before she had her H-1B visa. By then, she was nearly broke, as was her relationship.
Bhandari, using her own stories and others’, examines those hoops and hurdles that impede a skilled available workforce. Using data, she refutes the widely held assumption that these visa holders snatch jobs from the American workforce. After experiencing her own six-month delay to work in the U.S., she was granted EB1 status and given a green card.
Returning to India in 2005, she learned that neither the few available jobs nor the pay was commensurate with her degree and experience there. To India, she was too American. To Bhandari, India was too uninviting. America, however, offered freedom and respect.
Her life changed, however, when she learned The Institute of International Education (IIE) was looking for a director of research and evaluation. Using American moxie, she took a risk and was hired. With green card in hand, she moved to New York City to head the prestigious Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.
In this capacity, she writes that she would “understand, document, and report on the goals, challenges, and problems shared by international students from around the world.” To gain insight, she spoke with students in-depth. She also studied historical events such as 9/11 and the xenophobic Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban that put immigrants at risk and dealt major blows to international programs. Certainly, too, Covid-19 has reduced the number of international students, yet Bhandari uses the pandemic as an opportunity to emphasize the fact that former international students created vaccines and the N-95 mask.
I was curious what Dr. Bhandari thought her life would be like had she not studied in the U.S.
“I would likely have been living a fairly predictable and middle-class life in an Indian city like Delhi,” she told me. “I don’t know that I would have tried big and bold things or taken risks in my personal and professional life.”
The most important thing she learned having studied, lived, and worked in the U.S.?
“Education is a powerful tool and setting in which to learn about the world, and through which to expand our minds and challenge our beliefs,” she replied.
Bhandari is an inspiring writer, smoothly transitioning between personal memoir and scholarly clarity that data and research provide. She incorporates statistics and historical research, always enhancing her journey and the reader’s edification with stories and facts. When she relates the results of crunched numbers, she does so as easily as she relates her progress as a student and working immigrant. Thus, she is better able to present truth, conflicts, and trends.
Because of Bhandari’s engaging storytelling, the book will appeal to a readership interested in understanding cultural differences and the power of education. In the end, Bhandari shows that a U.S. education–one of the country’s top exports–is important, worthwhile, and a large part of how interconnected the world has become.
She is the Founder of Rajika Bhandari Advisors, which offers consulting services in evidence-based international education strategy. She also serves as a Senior Advisor to the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Her books and writings in newspapers and journals emphasize the intersections of migration and culture, and her next book will likely focus on these areas.
Bursting with not only a compelling story but also a wealth of information, America Calling is a timely read in today’s complicated world.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network).