It was 2015. Here I was, on my first trip to the US, visiting my son who had started his doctorate here a year ago. This was to be an idyllic sabbatical and a brief sojourn of living the American dream. I loved every moment of life in Lincoln, Nebraska. The town seemed to jump straight out of a picture book.
If I wasn’t gaping at the abundance of flowers in every imaginable variety and color by the clean roads, I was bowled over by the friendliness of the locals. And yes, I marveled at the hitherto unexperienced joy of crossing a road without a car honking at me, with no fear of being trampled over – phew! Lane-driving and following traffic-rules was actually possible! What a revelation was that!
And then my son took me to the university campus. t was love at first sight! The brick-red buildings connected by meandering walkways through manicured lawns, the imposing Love Library – I had never imagined, much less seen (other than in movies) such a huge cornucopia of books and the sheer ease of borrowing any number of books each time. It was all right out of Monster’s Inc. university! How wonderful it would be to stay and and study here for a while, I thought.
This last thought would not have entered my head if I hadn’t met Mr. Agarwal, who was my son’s student cohort. Mr. Agarwal had taken the incredibly bold step of leaving his career at 50+ and decided to enter academics so that he could work towards a future with his kids in the United States.
In India, for a majority of people,changing an established career at 50, is unthinkable. This is especially true in the smaller towns. What I was thinking of doing was radical and also foolish maybe? I mean, come on, who leaves the stability of an established life for the rigors of academic studies at such an “advanced” age?
Long story short, I was at Andrews Hall, in front of this self-possessed lady, the English Graduate Advisor who had replied to my tentative mail and agreed to see me (Another first – important people in India do not do that!) and my first words to her were “I am 50 years old.” I was glad she remained poker faced and politely interested. Thankfully, my next question was better – Could I apply for admission to the English department?
Fast forward to January 2016.TOEFL. A writing sample, Statement of purpose, and six months of anticipation went by. I finally got a letter that began with the words, “We are pleased to…” UNL had accepted me! That too for a funded position!
So, less than a year later, with the rock-solid support from my husband who promised to hold fort in Alwar, I was back in Lincoln again, as a student. Aug. 17th, 2016 was the first day that I found myself sitting on the student-side of the class after 1986. Weird is probably an understatement, to describe what I felt. But thank goodness for the lovely classmates (some of them were younger than my son!) and the teachers who never seemed to notice the age-difference. But I was still thankful to see that there were a handful of students who were closer to my age and some who were older than me. The ‘age-thing,’ you see, took a few more days to cease to matter in my mind. And once I was past that, I felt so liberated!
The system of education provided another whole paradigm of freedom as well. No more rote learning,or parroting of facts, you could actually disagree with your professors and they respected that. True, it wasn’t a cake-walk, actually, it was, when you consider a real walk on a cake would be mighty tough. So yes, all the ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ floating across the classmade me wonder whether we were speaking the same language at all; the sheer toughness of the task of writing papers made me seriously doubt my ability and sanity; I struggled with the hitherto unheard-of “research,” MLA and Chicago formats (wait, what?? I thought Chicago was a place); and most of all, I struggled to locate my argh…sorry “argument”. And I’m very sure that I gave my gentle professors a hard time explaining all of these terms to to me even as they struggled to keep up with my Indian expository versions of arguments.
This immensely enriching journey from teacher to student to teacher again, came to a logical culmination during the glorious commencement ceremony a few months ago. The corridors and the grand hall of the Pinnacle Bank Arena looked much like Hogwarts brought to life with all of us beaming ear to ear in our gowns, hoods and tassels; our families clapping hard in the galleries – that one moment, made all the heartache and all the hours when the world had ceased to exist beyond my books – worth it. So worth it.
And the final lessons through this exhilarating journey were many. One, age is a number, really just a number; Two, no one can achieve anything on their own, we owe all of our successes to many around us. I couldn’t have done it without the two men who supported me – my son and my husband – who , stoically stood beside me through my smiles and tears (Oh yes, tears were shed , remember arghument papers?); and of course all the wonderful people at University of Nebraska at Lincoln – administrative staff, encouraging professors, and many of my classmates, some of whom are now friends for life.
It has been quite a journey, one that was well worth it!