Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: Wanna Study in the U.S. 101 Tips to get you there!

Guide to US-bound students
Wanna Study in the U.S.? 101 Tips to get you there! by Natasha Pratap; Rupa & Co, Price: Rs.395; 302 pp

According to recently published US student enrollment statistics, India has surpassed
China as the No.1 country of origin for foreign students in American universities. Last year (2000-09) the aggregate Indian student population enrolled in institutions of higher education (95,000) topped the Chinese total. With a large and growing number of Indian students hell-bent on pursuing at least a part of their education in the US, this aggregate number is expected to grow by 20-25 percent annually. But making it into the US of A for higher study is easier said than done. With half the third world’s population fleeing communism, socialism, dictatorship and plain socio-economic mismanagement, aspiring to enter this fabled land of opportunity, the US immigration and naturalisation service is working overtime to keep out the scrambling hordes – especially after 9/11. Unsurprisingly the admission process is tedious and difficult questions are raised about adequacy of funding. Visa procedures too have become complicated.

For the swelling number of hopefuls fleeing India’s dumbed down institutions of higher education, Natasha Pratap’s maiden book Wanna Study in the US? 101 Tips To Get You There! is a boon. This easy-to-read volume written in simple English is a comprehensive compendium of accurate information and useful guidelines to students and professionals on ways and means of accessing American universities and institutions of higher education. “There is so much to be gained from a US education, that I continue to be grateful for it every day. Studying in the US is about pushing your boundaries: academically, intellectually, geographically and emotionally. The best thing is fearlessness and confidence I developed from my own experience. Choose to study in the US because it is better. Go because you will be the better for it,” writes Pratap an alumna of the blue chip Cambridge (UK), Stanford and Boston universities.

The merits of this chatty and unapologetically how-to book apart, a striking achievement is that she has persuaded Mukesh Ambani, chairman & managing director of the telecom, textile, petroleum and IT behemoth, Reliance Industries Ltd to write the foreword. “All these years, information on studying in the US was limited to a privileged class of Indian students, by virtue of their advantaged school, teacher and peer group environments. This book would democratise this advantage to a much wider cross section of Indian students,” says Ambani, himself a Stanford alumnus.

Though the information, data and procedural guidelines provided in this deliberately casually titled book is by no means novel, the fact that it has been collated, sorted and compiled into a one-point, well-laid out compendium is its unique selling proposition. “When friends asked me questions on their applications or essays I realised that what seemed obvious to me was not to others. Book stores in Mumbai had little information on the application procedure, and even prospectuses of colleges say little. The internet is too vast and some information is misleading. Since I had experienced the system first hand I decided to write this book,” says Pratap explaining her motivation to write this valuable guide.

Though the author claims to have completed this comprehensive volume in just seven weeks, this 302-page compendium is well organised into 11 main chapters each offering valuable nuggets of information and advice. The main chapters are: top 10 reasons to study in the US; 101 tips on the application process; scholarships from Indian sources; visa Q&A in consultation with the US Consulate, Mumbai; interviews with Stanford and Harvard university heads; application datelines; a special section for parents titled ‘heart to heart with indian parents’ among others.

Particularly useful is the chapter which includes the essays (SoPs) of Indian students which dazzled admission evaluators of blue-chip universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Columbia. The essays are discussed and dissected with the plus and minus points highlighted. “Many applicants tend to borrow SoPs from others and then modify it (sic). You may not be exposed to the kind of introspection and writing that applications to US universities demand. For many, the idea of writing itself is overwhelming and the nature of the questions makes them apprehensive. By including the essays of people who have gone through the process and written everything themselves, I want to illustrate that the task at hand may be different, but is not incredibly difficult,” explains the author, no mean correspondent herself who has written for publications such as The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Economic Times, The Times of India, The Indian Express, Mid-day, Verve, Man’s World and Elle.

The overwhelmingly major preoccupation of Indian students aspiring to education abroad – scholarships and bursaries – is also addressed. There seems little awareness that the natural instinct of institutions of higher education in the industrialised nations is to levy higher tuition fees on foreign students than payable by natives. Nevertheless there is widespread belief that scholarships are available in plenty. Wanna Study provides a list of trusts and foundation which offer (usually grudging) scholarships and bursaries to merit students.

Though a useful guide to the growing number of students driven to foreign universities by the abysmal and declining Indian institutions of higher education being relentlessly dumbed down by politicians and educrats, the publication and reportedly enthusiastic reception to Wanna Study is a wake-up call to Indian academia. That a rising number of Indian students are ready to pay relatively huge tuition and residential costs abroad and endure the rigours of incrementally humiliating visa and admission processes is a severe indictment of India’s higher education system. Quite evidently Indian educationists and academics need to get their act together and canalise the huge annual outflow of hard currencies into their own cash-starved institutions. But this requires the practice rather than mere preaching of excellence in Indian academia.

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