You would think, after watching enough pathetic Cubs seasons — the incredulity of our recent success never wanes — I would have fully adapted to my new country. But at Georgetown, I’ve discovered poignantly that being an immigrant is not as much a phase as it is an identity that I will juggle throughout my life against my other experiences.
The very notion of college in the United States is foreign in many ways to my parents, for instance. When I speak to my parents about day-to-day events at Georgetown, the conversations take a wildly different course from those of many of my friends. Essentially, my parents believe that college is just about academics — that is the predominant way university education is conducted in India — and it is pretty difficult to debunk this preconception. That a huge portion of learning occurs outside the classroom does not register as firmly with them, and they surely question the necessity or relevance of many of my extracurricular endeavors — including this one, I am sure.
The idea of a liberal arts education as a choice is similarly baffling for my parents, because in India, you basically take one exam, the score of which essentially dictates your profession. The arts, seen as less “productive,” are relegated to those who receive the lowest scores on their exams. Although my parents have always encouraged me to study whatever I want, their perception about my chosen majors — economics and government— is influenced by how they grew up. So, in a way, rather than my parents guiding me through college with their own anecdotes, I find myself educating them as I explore firsthand for myself.
Even my siblings’ college experiences were drastically different from mine. As the youngest of five, I have been in America during my most formative years. My older siblings, however, came to the country at an older age. Their college experiences consisted of full course loads and substantial on-campus and offcampus employment. They went to school near Chicago, so they were able to return home more frequently. The residential college experience, particularly being so far from home, is alien to my sisters, leaving out much of the cultural dimension that is associated with the quintessential four-year American undergraduate education.
In this respect, I have also played catchup through self-discovery, and I caution my friends that many common childhood references will result in a blank stare from me. My roommate, after I mentioned the Renaissance artist Donatello in conversation to another friend, asked me if I was referring to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Apparently, the turtles are all named after Renaissance artists — and I had absolutely no clue. This, much of Disney, and skiing, among other things, are subjects with which I have yet to be acquainted.
I find many of my classmates are passionately engaged in activities that they have been invested in since childhood. Whether it is playing piano or soccer, most of my friends grew up accustomed to one or several organized activities outside of school. I rarely had such a structure growing up; my parents encouraged me to explore, but there was no need to pursue this in a formal setting. It had not been a part of how they grew up, so naturally this process was not bequeathed to me. It seemed like many people had already identified their passions before coming to college, whereas I was still searching for mine.
Don’t mistake my comparisons for complaints — I am profoundly grateful for my experience as an immigrant. For one, I transferred to Georgetown from the University of Illinois, and transferring is analogous to emigrating. The University of Illinois is basically a different country, with different colors, a lot more people and different culture, geography and food than at Georgetown. Being an immigrant has consistently taught me to be curious and accountable in all aspects of life. If I do not remain curious, I will remain ignorant. I am compelled to interact with my peers and seek advice from them when I am stuck, figuring out much on my own. While it can be confusing and lonely at times, the immigrant experience is worthwhile because it teaches me patience and resilience.
Parth Shah is a senior in the College. Many Georgetowns appears every other Friday.