An Ivy League degree, considered by many as the pinnacle of academic achievements, is difficult to turn down. More so when a prestigious university offers $50,000 in scholarship money. Aniket Basu shares how he battled depression, and how it has made him a stronger, more decisive person.
Why I turned down a masters with scholarship offer from Cornell University
by Aniket Basu
I had always been an academically gifted child, having started reading from the age of 4. It didn’t take much effort to score well in PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics) for my 12th Boards. Since I couldn’t get a great rank in CET, I managed to get an Electrical Engineering seat in PESIT, Bangalore via COMED-K.
My father’s logic behind why he wanted to push me into a good engineering college was not because of good teachers, it was so that I could find good company and similarly motivated peers who would inspire me. Little did I know, how right he was.
I went on to do an internship at BHEL, was a research assistant at our college lab CORI (Crucible of Research and Innovation), presented a national paper on Orbital Dynamics, organized an amazing race for around 400+ people and created an online business which got me around 500$ in 6 months (not much I know, but to a college grad it was a lot) during my college years.
Life was set, or so my naïve brain thought. Within 4 months, frustrated that I couldn’t cope with the job pressure, I went into a severe depression which gave me stomach ulcers and I had to undergo a liquid diet. My mother fed me liquid fruits and vegetables which she had mixed in a grinder, every day, for two weeks. Two weeks of anti-depressants and general self-loathing. My brain wouldn’t shut up.
I had failed my family and my reputation, it said. I didn’t deserve to live. I was a waste of space. I didn’t deserve my job, any job. I was a useless defect in the gene-pool of our society. My thoughts even hovered around suicide a couple of times. But I couldn’t even muster up the energy to take the final step. I just spent days looking up the fan while my brain conjured up a million ways I sucked as a person, socially, romantically and as a human being.
You see, depression in something no one talks about in India. It is so highly stigmatized that I suspect there are a lot of people who walk around with it who can’t acknowledge that they have mental issues. Instead they manifest it in physical symptoms, “I don’t feel like eating, I have no appetite, I am bored all the time, god, I just want to sleep 18 hours a day.” Stigmatization of mental-health is common globally, but India takes the cake.
In India, it seems to me that all of life is an escalator, which starts with studying science, then engineering, then two years of job at a prestigious IT company, then an MBA, then arranged marriage, then three decades of job performance, with promotions every two years, honeymoons at exotic locations with appropriate Facebook tags, a couple of beautiful grandkids, who then will go to fulfill this same pattern.
You are appreciated for sticking to this escalator and severely punished for deviating even a bit, god forbid taking a different escalator or sacrilege! even a lift. (May have gone too far with the metaphor here)
And right here, was the problem. I haven’t been completely honest until now. You see, even though I was good at PCM and had got a first-class honours in Electrical Engineering, my real dream was to be an artist. I had loved drawing and painting from an early age.
I started to learn animation on my own in sixth standard, making shitty stick figures move up and down. I loved video-editing, using whatever trial versions of softwares I could pull off the internet, while learning from Youtube tutorials. I loved writing, having maintained a blog for my last few semesters in college.
But I was always told to be ‘Practical’. Those things couldn’t earn money, my parents said. And I believed them. But then, after the anti-depressants started working and I became better, I gradually came to an important realization. My body had been showing me signs my mind wouldn’t accept.
You see, if you are pleasing everyone in your life, your family, your parents, your society, you are inevitably disappointing the most important person in your life, yourself.
And while disappointing yourself is easy at first, pushing aside your goals and dreams aside to satisfy a hypocritical society, slowly but surely it will eat away at you, internally.
I had been ignoring my inner authentic voice for too long. And I decided to take a stand. Without telling my parents, I started researching video-editing and graphic-design jobs and was disappointed to see that the entry level pay was very low. And that’s when I decided to look within my firm.
Because when you change within a company they will never cut down your salary.
I was determined to earn the same amount of money as I did from coding. So I asked a Director within my company, if there were any teams within the firm who were doing video work. He pointed me to the Learning Design Services team who created all the corporate e-learning videos and courses for my company. He set up a meeting with them, and I put in a lot of effort to get a position there.
I asked them to send me any video-work, so I could create a Proof Of Concept so they could judge my talent. I worked weekends, while balancing my office work at the time and finally, in June 2016, I moved to this team, my profile involving graphic design and video-editing.
Sounds amazing right? I had got what I wanted! Not really, whenever you think you have figured things out, life will always have more surprises in store. Turns out transitioning from a hobby to a profession is very difficult. I was working with people who had decades of experience in video-editing, graphic design, branding with BFAs and MFAs. Initially my feedback on projects were terrible and pages long.
“You haven’t used the right font size, you should edit better between cuts, the colour-correction is off, you haven’t synced the audio well.”
Many days were spent working late into the night, thinking I had made a mistake, maybe following your passion is not all it is cracked up to be. But slowly and surely, I got better. I was told I was a rare graphic designer who could script as well. I was complimented on certain projects.
I was able to work better and more efficiently. I was able to create and direct entire video campaigns with US based stakeholders, internal clients, go through multiple rounds of feedback and make sure the project was creatively good, both in terms of design and originality.
Around this time, I was researching career paths and that is when I stumbled across MBA Crystal Ball. I read a bunch of articles, and I found a bunch of helpful ones. I enjoyed (empathised with?) the accounts of the IITian who had suffered from depression. I liked that MBA Crystal Ball explored all sides of an issue, not a politically friendly version of it.
Manish Gupta from MBA Crystal Ball was very helpful in giving me an overview of all the things in my profile which would appeal to the adcom and all the things I had to improve on.
I even read, Sameer Kamat’s “Beyond the MBA Hype”. Even if you have no interest in an MBA, I highly recommend this book. Very entertaining and a fast read.
After his advice, I thought deep and realized that I was just acting out a psychological bias called “Social Proof”.
I wanted to do an MBA at a prestigious college because I did not like my job and I thought getting an admit would impress everyone.
Even though I had achieved a creative role, the problem was that my firm was still a Tax and Audit company and I could only edit so many videos on boring tax laws before I got saturated. Guys, making a decision just for a change, especially a 35-lakh decision (cost of ISB) is dangerous. Always make a proper pro and cons list before making any major life-choice.
Around August 2017, I quit, having achieved enough to try my hand at freelancing. By now I had developed enough confidence to do things without asking permission from my parents. I told them, of course. My father was supportive, and mom was hysterical. Isn’t that always the way? Anyway, during this time, I visited my relatives in the US.
One of my aunt’s husband is a scientist who runs a research lab where they are literally trying to find a cure for a very specific type of cancer. I was bowled over and inundated him with questions and he was impressed by my knowledge of cognitive science and psychology. He convinced me that I had the mental aptitude for a Masters.
When I returned to Bangalore the master’s keeda (bug) had caught me. I had already given the GRE in my college, achieving a 325. For an idea on how I did this, here’s an article I wrote on it.
I went through a huge research phase to figure out the best master’s programs in the USA. Finally, I settled on an MS in Human Computer Interaction. It was a combination of creative skills, psychology and coding.
I applied to Georgia Tech, Texas A & M, Bentley University and on a whim a dual degree in Health Tech from Cornell University (Since my depression, I had developed a deep interest in Mental Health). I slogged over getting three recommenders, two from my office and one of my professors who had overlooked my research project at college. I made sure the different recommendations showed off different parts of my profile to make me a well-rounded candidate.
I studied sample SOP’s online [read – How to write an SoP] and contacted former classmates in good universities to have a look at my SOP. I polished and polished my CV until there was not a single wasted word on it. No extra fluff. And finally gave the TOEFL and applied to all 4 colleges.
Around May, I got a reply from Cornell asking if I would be interested in having my application considered for their dual degree in Connective Media as my profile suited that. I said yes, gladly.
After a week, I got a Sparkhire interview link for a video interview. This was a weird interview. I would be video-recording my responses to a bunch of questions and the whole thing would be sent to Cornell.
A week after this the major fireworks started. Cornell sent me a mail saying I had been accepted into their program! And then mentioned the fees (87,000$).
I have, till that point never been more simultaneously happy and disappointed in my life.
Being from a middle-class family, I couldn’t afford 58 Lakhs for the program. I sent them an apologetic mail saying I would have to decline their offer. They replied with a scholarship of 30,000$!
I was ecstatic. Well, 38 Lakhs was still expensive, but affordable. And that’s when my dad lit the fuse. “Hold on,” he said, “are you sure that’s the entire fees or its just for the first year?”
Panicked, I sent another mail asking for confirmation, only to be told the fees they had sent was only for the first year. So, the cost without scholarship was…wait for it…wait for it – 1.14 CRORES!!!
Now look, I would most definitely have loved a Ivy League education but if I could afford a crore I wouldn’t be applying for a Masters. After yet another refusal to Cornell, they came back with a USD 50,000 discount.
So now my cost of education hovered around 80 Lakhs and I had a tough choice to make. You see, these were huge amounts of money and with all the extra information and subsequent discounts my entire body and mind were tortured like it had never been. My heart couldn’t have palpitated more if it was hooked onto Bitcoins monthly valuations.
Also, on the other side my extended family in America wasn’t making this an easy decision.
Forget Hawkeye from the Avengers who could shoot arrows at aliens just by sound, Bengali families can shoot emotional arrows at the inner depths of your psyche.
My grandmother called to tell me she had always wanted me to do a higher education. My scientist uncle called me to say that if I gave up this once in a life-time opportunity I would regret it forever just as my dad would have regretted giving up his seat to an IIM when he was my age.
[Didn’t I tell you? When my dad was around 26, he had got a seat at IIM Bangalore but hadn’t been able to afford it and no one in his family had actively encouraged him to take it.]
My mom told me they would sell of one of our properties to get the initial investment and my relatives in the U.S. would lend me money as well to cover the loans. And this is when I came to a realization.
Everyone had been advising me on what to do, but no one, no one ever asked me what I wanted.
No, the prestige and appeal of one of their clan going to a Ivy League college was just too much to resist. I created a thought experiment. On one hand I could go on a bunch of loans, effectively mortgaging my entire life for the next 5 years or so, at the whims and mercy of a scary financial loan, in a country which in the Trumpian Era treated my people as second-class citizens, making them wait decades for a green card and even making their lives hell for a H1B Visa.
On the other hand, I could say no and listen to my disappointed relatives my whole life. Guys, saying no to Cornell was the hardest decision I ever had to make. But the moment I sent that mail to say I could not accept their offer, I felt an inner peace pervade me that I hadn’t felt in weeks. I knew, from deep within, that I had made the right decision.
Now of course, there will always be a crowd of vocal people who will say, you made a terrible mistake, you operated out of a fear-based mindset, you disappointed your entire family, etc. I just have one answer. I got the admit to Cornell, and it was MY decision to make.
Now, as for the future, I am applying to jobs for animation work as well as I have some documentary projects in the works. I recently made a documentary to raise awareness for student suicides which has been received quite well.
My advice for higher ed aspirants. ALWAYS be aware who you are doing higher ed for. It’s not easy. First look deep within and answer these questions.
- Am I applying because I am bored with my current role or job? – A Masters won’t solve your boredom, try looking for different roles within your company or other companies. Always take the route of getting PAID TO LEARN than the other way around.
- Am I applying to this university because it is prestigious and will look good on my resume or is it because I am in love with the curriculum and the professors in the university are doing interesting work in the area of research I am interested in?
- Am I applying to please some Puppet Master in my life, could be seeking your parent’s approval or some relative you really respect? Sometime other people’s best laid plans for you may not be what makes YOU happy.
- If I accept an offer, can I live with the worst-case scenario of the consequences, like coming back to India without a job? Be careful guys, America has sold the whole world that higher education is the only way to success, yet it holds a trillion dollars in student loan debt. (Did you also know, that you can declare bankruptcy for credit card debt or financial loan in the US, but NOT for student loan debt)
- Also, there a bunch of scholarships (link) you should check out when beginning your research phase. The government is always willing to fund exceptional students and you shouldn’t have any qualms for applying to these scholarships.
Overall, though guys, I don’t want you to get disheartened by this. Take all the advice from anyone, even MBA Crystal Ball, with a discerning mind.
Everyone’s situation is different. What advice applies to one man may be destructive to another one with a different mindset. Life is huge, you get at least 80 years on this beautiful planet.
You get to do all sorts of amazing things. You get to choose your own friends. Your smartphone today has more computing power than the computing labs which sent man to the moon> Online education has never been cheaper. Life expectancy has shot up. India is poised on the verge of a technological revolution. Travelling and tourism has become cheaper and affordable.
In this day and age, a man with a laptop can start an online business which solves crucial problems of society, from the comfort of his home, the blog you’re reading this article on being one of them.
In a very popular article written by a palliative nurse, called the “Top 5 Regrets of the dying”, guess what the topmost regret was?
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
To give you a grand picture, we are a bunch of semi-evolved apes who live on a spherical rock which orbits a tiny star, in a far corner of the milky way galaxy filled with three billion stars, which is itself part of the observable universe which has over 100 billion galaxies, which may itself be part of a grand multiverse.
Don’t make the mistake I did, which is to take life too seriously.
Write that book you wanted, say hi to that girl you have always wanted to talk to, make that short film you always had at the back of your head, start a blog about your industry. Look, don’t do it with the intention to get famous, that will corrupt your intentions and make your product a generic version you created to impress other people.
But just think, what sounds better when you tell your grandkids, “Hey, check out this book I wrote once upon a time” or “Hey, check out this ‘Best Employee Award’ I got for twenty years of service at XYZ company”?
Finally, I leave you with a quote by one of the people I admire most – Richard P. Feynman, world-renowned Physicist.
You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.
– What’s it like to study in an Ivy League masters program (UPenn) as an international student
– The dark side of attending Ivy League programs
– How this MBA student got into Cornell Johnson Program