What are the things that Indian and international students arriving on American university campuses need to do? What are the most important documents and processes that you need to tackle first?
Rakhi Acharyya has plenty of tips, hacks and advice to get you sorted.
Though not quite like Columbus, a first timer’s trip to the Americas could feel like an expedition. Fresh off the boat,as a rookie in the US is often called, many young students head there for a global education experience, after jumping through all the hoops of GRE, GMAT, SAT.
They are careful, cautious and excited. They follow the lists to the T and hope that they are absolutely prepared for what is coming.
But sometimes it helps to have some idea of what is waiting on the other side. Here’s my recap of what I experienced and thought to be helpful as I began my life in a small college town of USA.
So we fly for a whole day and reach the day before?
I remember my first trip to the US. A very well dressed airport staff had asked me whether I had packed my own bag. Isn’t that too personal? I had said. More because I was embarrassed to mention that it was actually my mother who packed it and my brother had fought the mortal combat with the suitcase zipper.
I wasn’t a novice to traveling but had never stepped outside the country before. I was prepared, mind you. I had the survival kit- maggi, daal, jeera and haldi. I was told salt is aplenty in the US, but never to buy spices there. I had it all covered. A fellow student (who I had never met before) was going to pick me up and take me to my apartment. I thought it was particularly clever of me to book an apartment after researching roommates-needed, on Orkut (remember that?).
The personal AV entertainment, in my humble economy class, was just too precious. Of course I was pining for having left my home for what could might as well be Mars, for me. But hey…20 movies and some of my favorite shows? I couldn’t ever understand who would be viewing the flight route instead. After the 16th hour, I was doing just that-waiting to see touch down.
When the stewardess handed me the customs form, I felt this incredible urge to let out all my secrets. Is khuskhus a contraband?
Meet the city
When I did step off my flyingboat, I was dumbstruck. I had never seen anything this tidy. The streets were clean, the grass was trimmed, neighborhoods were groomed and made to look alike and most distinctly, there were exactly six people on the road, from the airport to the apartment…and none of them was peeing on the side street!
Now I must mention that I went from one of the most crowded cities in India, Delhi, to one of those small tiny college towns. So the gradient was steep.
But hey, you won’t ever imagine how populated India is unless you step out and look in. It was the first time I realized that I can actually go to a market or travel in a bus without counting the pores on someone else’s nose, being that up close and personal.
It took me two weeks to get rid of my jetlag. My body was simply unable to process the change in time, sleep, food and a daily sunset of 9pm! Time slowly took away the initial shock and I was ready to get things in order.
This one is hard for first timers. Most towns in the US don’t have a well-connected and frequent public transport system and cabs are way too expensive. So getting around would mean buying a car (which we are yet to get to) or getting hold of a desi veteran with a car. One who knows where to get you everything, starting from your pillow to your toilet brush. That veteran usually turns out to be the senior student and that retail paradise usually ends being Walmart.
Umm… well what about a phone? A bank account? A social security number (SSN)?…Not in that order.
Note: Get to work to arrange for your SSN as soon as you arrive.
Nothing, I repeat, nothing is possible without that. It is like the holy grail of your existence in the US. It is essentially your National Identification Number.
So once you receive your papers of admission from your University, get hold of the Car-wala friend and head to the SSN office. And when you do get it, keep it safe, very very safe, unless you want someone else to walk away with your degree, after having stolen your identity.
Ok, so assuming you have your SSN stashed away, you are now ready to open a bank account. That one is fairly simple. And unlike your native country, no one is interested in knowing your Father’s name/ Husband’s Name or their stamp of approvals.
SSN – Check
Bank Account – Check
Well…you see you can’t get a credit card because you don’t have a credit card. Much like a chicken-chicken situation. Which comes first, credit card or the credit card? To put it simply, you don’t have a credit history. So you can’t get a credit card or for that matter, a phone or an internet connection.
So how to solve this?
You get what is called a Secured Credit card. You deposit some money in that bank you have begun banking with. They give you a credit card against that deposit. This may walk, talk or quack like a Debit Card, but it isn’t. Trust me. It helps you build that credit history that American businesses so treasure.
You got it. Tricky!
Unlike someone with a credit history, you can’t purchase a phone connection without depositing some hefty amount of money with the service provider. Don’t worry, they promise to send back the cheque in a year’s time, but you still have to part with about $500 just ‘coz they don’t trust you, yet.
Assuming you have these essentials down, you still have some others to sort out.
Very useful for getting drunk at the local bar. I would never recommend carrying your passport to a place you will be most definitely getting inebriated.
A good idea is to start with a State ID card. It works at airports, at bars and the occasions when it is simpler to hand over your Name Card instead of spelling out PundorikakshaPurakayastha, to the Stan’s and Julie’s.
All it takes is a couple of trips to your local Secretary of State office.
Every town, city, metro has it. And they are a life saver. You may cringe for a while, having made to pay $2 for one small pack of Maggi, but you will soon learn to ignore the 150% profit margin, feeling a tingle of satisfaction when you see the month old frozen jalebi, a grab away.
Well actually this could fall under essentials if you have managed to mess up something and need your home away from home to save you. So know which embassy has jurisdiction over your city. There are six of them- Washington DC, Chicago, New York, Houston, San Francisco and Atlanta.
For most of us, traveling to the US is a very alien concept. We know about the Americas, we see them on news and we occasionally witness them saving planet earth from big bad alien attacks. However, it is a whole other experience to land there as a legal alien, all alone and foreign.
The first few months are always a race to get comfortable. It helps to know part of the script before you go.
So here’s hoping that these tips help you be better prepared than Columbus’s navigator…you know the guy who took a wrong turn at the equator!
About the author: Rakhi is a PhD from Michigan State University, currently a Post Doc at S N Bose Centre. A woman with many interests, she has taught on the hills of Sahyadri, worked in Corporate America, and wants to try animal welfare, historical translations and, perhaps, carpentry.
Image credit: USC.edu