Boston, Dec. 26: Nikhil Dhar may or may not have stalked and stabbed his University of Massachusetts teacher, associate professor Mary Elizabeth Hooker, over his falling grades. But if the charges against the 22-year-old Calcutta boy are true, he wouldn’t be the first Indian student in America to have had a breakdown.
For instance, Nitin Gupta (name changed) was forced to abandon a prestigious position in a Harvard PhD programme and return home a few years ago. He had been picked up by the authorities while walking on a car-only freeway in a mental haze, caused by schizophrenia.
R. Kartik (also name changed) killed himself in the middle of his PhD course at the University of Texas, Austin.
Were the universal pressures of academic life to blame, or are Indian students in the US particularly susceptible to breakdowns'
Most Indians, even if they have initial hiccups adjusting to the American academic system, seem eventually to settle down smoothly.
“The American system forces you to understand material, so in the first semester I was taken aback by some of my tests,” said University of Texas student Altaf Arsiwala.
“But once I learnt to adjust to the system, I felt no pressure from the curriculum.”
An Indian engineering student at the University of Massachusetts ' Nikhil’s university ' agreed, saying: “While the American system, which I entered last fall, was quite different from my undergraduate education in Delhi University, I had no trouble adapting.”
Some students, such as Amit Pal Singh, a former undergraduate at the University of Texas, have found it easier to get good grades in their US university compared with their school back home.
But although most Indian students are able to cope with the American curriculum itself, some other factors often add to the pressure.
“My parents paid a huge amount towards fees for my master’s programme. This certainly made me feel I had to get A’s in all my courses,” a University of Texas student said.
Kaveri Rajaraman, a graduate student in the biology department at Harvard, agreed that the pressure of living up to parental expectations can be a source of anxiety.
Rajaraman said many Indian students send home detailed reports of their grades every semester. Poor performance in just a single course can, therefore, lead to tension.
Even Nitin Gupta’s parents would keep calling him, in the middle of the most stressful part of his research project, to ask how he was doing in class. After some time, Nitin decided to always answer that he was “coming first”.
Financial worry, too, plays a part.
“I borrowed money to pay for my master’s education,” a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student said. “So I felt tremendous pressure to get a job immediately afterwards.”
Also, many Indian students work late at night to pay for their education. The sheer physical and mental exhaustion can add to the stress.
Sometimes, paradoxically, a support system can backfire. Indian students, facing academic pressures in a foreign country, often turn to other Indians at their university for moral and emotional support. But not everyone finds the experience entirely happy.
“Though my Indian friends were supportive about grades, they would often highlight the fact that they had scholarships while I didn’t,” Arsiwala said.
Most US universities have formal mechanisms to deal with student stress.
“Harvard is very supportive of students with problems, and our senior tutor (Harvardspeak for resident dean) at Leverett House spends a lot of her time on this kind of activity,” said physics professor Howard Georgi, who is also the master of Leverett House, an undergraduate residence at Harvard.
But this counselling system is far from foolproof.
Nitin Gupta’s friends had forced him to visit a counsellor, who cited privacy concerns and refused to discuss the situation with them. Predictably, Gupta never went back. In other instances, students simply refuse to seek counsellors’ help.