Immigrant Bengalis

I believe that the main reason for the lack of interest in higher education among young students in this country, especially in science andmathematics, is the low expectation set by their parents.  Many years ago, I almost got angry at my secretary Debbie at Sony when she was telling me one day that she had told her fourteen years old son, who was about to enter high school, that “if he did not go to college it would not be the end of the world”.  I told her that it was the wrong thing to say, and that she should have not only encouraged her son to plan for college but also made it an absolute requirement and assured him of fully supporting his efforts in that regard.  If all of his efforts, both academic as well as financial, failed to get him admitted into any college, then that would be the time to console him and say “it is not the end of the world”

There is another important reason.  Girls in this country from their early teen years are led to the belief that the most important thing for them is to look “hot” (or is it "cool"?) – by optimizing their natural beauty and sex appeal.  This conviction is slowly but surely grilled into their head by exposure to various media (TV shows, fashion magazines, movies, rap music, ads in newspapers, etc.), peer pressure and even encouragement from family members about looking good.  If a girl does not get a date for her senior prom, the thinking is that she might as well just jump off a cliff.  Of course, the guys notice that and like that.  The result is inevitable teen romance, pre-marital sex, and in many cases a marriage at a very early age.  If a couple gets married, then both can kiss “good bye” to college education, as family obligations and earning money to meet those obligations would take much higher priorities.  If the wife gets pregnant, the situation only gets worse

The high cost of college education is often cited as a reason as well.  However, I believe that there are plenty of scholarships, student aids and loan programs available so that anyone determined to attend college with reasonably good grades should be able to get the necessary financial help.  If all else fails, one can start by attending a two-year junior or community college where tuition fees are minimal.

We, the people of Indian descent, know the value of higher education because that was our ticket to come to USA and live a good life.  One of the topmost priorities for almost all Indian parents is to make sure that the kids get a good education.  When we look for a house to buy or rent, the first criterion is that it has to be located in a good school district.  We save money with the cost of college education for our children in mind.

From a parental support point of view, my daughter Swapna (not her real name, at her request) was fortunate in the sense that both of her parents had Ph.D.s and good financial means.  We never explicitly imposed any specific academic goal on her, but it was clear to her simply from our various comments and body language that she had to go as high as she possibly could in her studies and aim for as good a college as she possibly could get admission into.  As part of this culture, I planned a trip with her and her mother to some of the best universities in the country before the beginning of her high school senior year.  We chose some of the Ivy League schools in the east coast and a couple of University of California campuses (those in Berkeley, San Diego and Los Angeles) plus Stanford on the west coast.  We had no interest in any university in the entire mid-west or the south.  Since we lived in California, our logic was that she would either go to an Ivy League school or to a school not too far from home.  The trips were both informative and also had a vacation type flavor.  Not surprisingly, two universities stood out as our favorites: Harvard from the east and Stanford from the west.

I had never been to the Harvard campus before this trip.  Being there I felt that I was part of American history! I wandered through some of the large lecture halls, took photographs at the statue of Mr. John Harvard and strolled along the bank of Charles River.  I really liked the whole environment.  In addition, the fact that the city of Boston was just across the river meant that travel to and from the campus would be convenient and there were abundant sources of entertainment and pastime.  I became quickly convinced that Harvard was THE place.

Stanford was also very impressive but different.  It was newer, much more spread out and had elements of natural beauty in its surrounding; also the student life seemed a little bit more laid back and the climate was perfect.  The main entrance along Palm Drive, lined on both sides with large palm trees, was really majestic.  I loved the campus – the chapel, the quad, the clock tower.  My brain said Harvard was the place, but my heart said it was Stanford.

I prayed that Swapna would attend one or the other school.  My way of motivating her was somewhat unconventional – just like everything else about my strategies.  The elder daughter of one of our Bengali friends, who was several years senior to Swapna, had recently graduated from the Harvard law school.  My favorite and frequent statement to Swapna was “Sushmita and Kishore’s daughter went to Harvard! Now, if you do not get admission to Harvard, how can we even show our face in our friends circle?”  I do not know if it really motivated her, but she was definitely not amused and understood that it was not just a joke.

In any event, Swapna did not disappoint us.  She graduated as a Valedictorian from her high school and got offers of admission from Stanford, Yale, the three UC campuses and a few others, and was on the wait-list for Harvard.  There were a total of five students (including her) on that wait-list and we anxiously waited to see if she would get in.  However, the deadline for acceptance at Stanford soon arrived; she had to make a decision and she decided to accept the offer from Stanford.  There was some discussion about the merits of attending Yale, but we all decided against it, mainly because traveling back and forth from Yale would involve commuting by train to New York City, and although the campus was very nice, the surrounding area reminded us of an inner-city neighborhood.

Although we were reasonably open-minded, we never encouraged our daughter to seek a boyfriend at high school and she seemed to be happy with her circle of girlfriends, studies and extra-curricular activities at school.  She did manage to get a date for her senior prom though.  So we were somewhat surprised when we learned that she found a “boy friend” during her first year at Stanford.  We never asked her what that meant, but were happy to learn that the boy, Sam (a short for Samudra), was of Bengali descent, one year senior to Swapna and just like Swapna, born in USA as an only child to first generation immigrant parents.  I remember Swapna telling me, with quite a bit of excitement, that one of the likable attributes of Sam was that “he works out”!  Many people say that girls tend to be attracted to guys who are somewhat like their fathers.  Judging by the “work out” criterion, it was clearly not the case with Swapna.

Apart from getting a good education for the purpose of having a good career, I am now a strong believer in college education for another reason.  For most people, college is the place where you find your life partner and perhaps where everyone should try to find their life partner.  High School is too early and you certainly do not seek them out in a bar or online dating scene.  The better is the college you attend, the better are the chances of meeting someone with a bright future.

Attendance at a good college also exposes one to various viewpoints, various passions, hobbies and lifestyles of different students, all of which are good for developing a healthy and balanced outlook towards life.

Sam remained as Swapna’s one and only boy-friend.  They got married after they both finished medical school and now have two beautiful kids.  They have settled down in Atlanta after residency and fellowship.  Swapna, who received her M.D. from Johns Hopkins, is a faculty member at Emory School of Medicine as an Epidemiologist and Sam, who is a Cardiologist, joined a private group practice.

Even though I left Sony many years ago and had no contact with Debbie since I left, I was always curious to know if her son ended up going to college, especially after I gave her my strong encouragement.  I accidentally found out that information when I was doing a Google search on Debbie.  Her son did get into a local community college but died of a drug overdose in 2005 at the age of 21.  I felt a tremendous amount of shock and sadness.  I realized that this was the other influence, figuratively and literally, killing the aspiration for college education for the younger generation in this country.

Addiction to alcohol and drugs has always been around as long as I have been in this country, starting from LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs from the hippie era.  Abuse of hard drugs like Cocaine and Heroin has also been in vogue, especially in the more impoverished neighborhoods and among the super rich.  What is new is the rather wide-spread use of prescription pain-killer pills such as OxyContin.  I do not know who started this trend and how, but it is dangerous and has the potential of destroying an entire generation.  It is disgusting to know that some doctors are even over-prescribing such pills, knowing very well the intended purpose of the addictive patients in using such medication, solely for the purpose of making money.

It is clear to me that we have to somehow address these four fundamental issues if we want to improve the level of education among young people in this country: i) stronger expectation placed on the students by parents; ii) less emphasis on pre-marital sex; iii) elimination of drug abuses and iv) promotion of the secondary benefits of a college education.  Just pouring money in various programs and loan funds will not do much good.  It is a tall order, but I do not see any other way.  It is also no wonder why the second generation Indian students are doing so well in their academic endeavor.  They do not have to worry about facing these issues.  In fact, one of my friends commented a long time ago that the people of Indian origin would eventually surpass the Jewish people as the dominant ethnic group in this country and influence every aspect of how this country is run.  He might be right.

I have not quite given up on Harvard.  Swapna and Sam went to Boston a couple of years ago with their daughter.  I called Swapna up and told her to take her daughter to the Harvard campus, buy her a baby T-shirt in that Harvard maroon color from the campus book-store with the name Harvard written on it, and to make sure that she understood that this was her future destination!

(Posted February 1, 2016)

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Comments received from Alok C. on Feb 1, 2016:

"I read with great interest the article by Basab Dasgupta. It is a well written piece.

Basab has identified the problem related to education in this country quite well. His secretary Debbie is not alone who does not value education nor inspire her kid to get a good education. Having spent my life in higher education, I think that the major problem the minority communities have is that the parents don't value education. The schools in Newark are in bad shape while our Berkeley Heights schools were excellent. The parents in Berkeley Heights cared. Politicians will make you believe that we don't spend enough on Newark schools. That is not true. Mark Zuckerberg spent $100 million to make Newark schools better, the results are disappointing.

Education is a great leveler. It does provide means to economic and social mobility. Unfortunately, this is not shared by many in the US.

The anti-intellectual "frontier mentality" dominates in the American psyche. That is why football is more important to the boys while the girls are exhorted to be the attractive cheer leaders of color guards. To be good in math and science is supposedly bad for girls. I myself had to fight hard with the school to keep my daughter in higher math class, though her grades were good. That is the time I decided to run for the school board. Parents have to be vigilant that our kids don't get sucked into this frontier mentality."

Expectation Setting: College Education in U.S.A.

Basab Dasgupta