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  • Madhura Shringare, Brandeis University

Dare to Dream: Navigating American Education as an International Student

As I was making my morning 4 a.m. commute to work as a Financial Associate in capital markets, life struck me with inspiration through a simple HBR article. I had a fantastic job, I was a fresh grad ready to conquer the world, and I truly wanted to “make a difference.” Even after three years into the job, that I loved every ounce of it, I was itching to go back to school.

As an Indian student dreaming of an American education every waking minute, our domestic currency made that dream more and more impossible. However, one person was more determined than me to help me realize my desire to attend Brandeis University. And that was my father.

Today, I am going to share some of the trade secrets that inspired me to dream beyond my limits and taught me how to navigate the realities of higher education as an international student.

Be flexible; don't let finances hold you back.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have struggled in my relationship with money. It was confounding and frustrating because, as an international student whose currency is 70 times costlier than the dollar, I entered the vicious cycle of negatively downplaying my experiences. I measured their worth by contributing to my final act of landing an internship or a full-time job search. As a result, I did not see the intrinsic value hidden in each experience and the lasting connections I would make. Furthermore, I compared them to life's tradeoffs that were as big as pulling off an extra shift at work while studying for my exams. Yet it all had to be done.

Of course, in your first year in the USA, it will be a substantial financial crunch. Yet we should always be on the lookout for solutions and keep that problem-solving mode on at all times. If you want to attend a conference or travel for research, seek out resources at your university, ask your professors for assistance, and search for advice from experts around you. What you will discover is that someone will always point you in the right direction if you are determined. As my mom would say, "Be passionate. Don't dim that fire in your eyes, and that enthusiasm will craft a way for you."

Be your mentor, but also find one, too.

The necessity of mentorship is such a delicate concept that one cannot even begin to explain it. Still, I think of it as follows: Different people act as mentors in different stages of your life, and it should not be a one-sided relationship.

When I first started school, I found mentorship in my brother and my friends from international backgrounds. They helped me adjust to the fast pace of life as we had one thing in common--a sense of newness. But now that I am in my second year, I found mentorship in my manager at work and with my American classmates who help me assimilate culturally into this country. Additionally, while some people may find this surprising, not all of my mentors are graduate students. A few of my best mentors are undergraduate students. Therefore, do not put an "age limit" on peer mentoring and remain open to learning new opportunities.

Trust yourself, and don't be intimidated.

Yes, I get it. Being an international student starts fantastic, but as soon as the honeymoon phase is over, we can feel things are working against us. It was all overwhelming, starting from hiring policies to visa restrictions to financial constraints. I understand that feeling, as I have been there. Right now, we start doubting ourselves--from getting used to English as our first language, learning the dietary norms, and getting the hang of the employment landscape. Every international student has to unravel these mysteries as fast as possible, and when this realization sinks in, we often feel even more intimidated. Yet this only slows the process down and makes way for distrust. All of this, of course, is easier said than done. As someone who has experienced everything I have listed, I urge you to trust the process, give your very best, and take care of yourself in the process. Mindful self-care is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Moreover, being self-aware and conscious can open doors significantly faster than having tunnel vision.

Life as an international student is an adventure, and it can be significantly different than other aspects of your journey. The pressure that comes with being an international student can make it challenging to keep up your morale during challenging times; however, it is essential to remember one thing. We--as students--irrespective of where we come from, are incredibly resilient beings and highly adaptable. So now is the time to tune out our fears and chase our ambitions.

As my friend Felipe Loza of New Mexico State University says, "Don't waste time being mediocre. Be exceptional. Be extraordinary."

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