Nebraska, the “Cornhusker” State
Little did I know when I left America to return to India with my parents in December of 1960, that after a span of nineteen years, I would return again in 1979 as a graduate student to pursue a doctoral degree.
I had accepted a teaching assistantship in the Chemistry department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, UN-L. Although my MSc from Jadavpur University had a specialization in Physical Chemistry, I opted for Biochemistry for my doctoral program when I initially started at UN-L. Why I mention “initially”, will be made apparent later.
I took a KLM flight from Delhi to Amsterdam and then a following one from Amsterdam to Chicago. Twenty-one years earlier, I had landed on American soil for the first time in New York with my parents, and now in Chicago all by myself! My flight from Amsterdam had arrived late so I had little time to connect with my domestic flight to Lincoln. Moreover, Chicago being my port of entry, I had to go through the formalities of immigration and customs. Luckily, I was met at the airport by a representative from UN-L (a representative from the University’s foreign student office) who whisked me through and carrying my luggage rushed me to the domestic gate to catch a Frontier airlines flight to Lincoln. I thanked her profusely and set off for my final destination!
During this approximately one and half hour journey from Chicago to Lincoln, my next-seat fellow passenger, an American about fortyish, struck up a conversation. He enquired where I came from and what my purpose for going to Lincoln was. On hearing that I was about to start graduate studies in Chemistry at the University there, his interest piqued, and he introduced himself as a faculty in the Microbiology department at the same university, but at their East campus. My Chemistry department was on the main city campus separated by some distance, the reason perhaps I never bumped into him at any time later, nor did I consciously attempt to see him either.
He narrated to me, in flight, some facts about the University, its history, their pride in its football team, the “Cornhuskers” and a precautionary note about the harsh winters. Just before we landed and when we were flying over the campus, he gave me an aerial guide to the different university buildings, including the various departments, and pointed specifically to Hamilton Hall which housed the Chemistry department. He pointed out, of course, the very impressive and large football stadium. Near the campus, he also pointed to the tallest building in the city, the Capitol building, built in the midst of a beautifully landscaped area, looking even more picturesque from above.
That was perhaps one of the most useful and engaging chats one could have with a fellow passenger on a plane ride and although I do not remember his name or his face anymore, I definitely recall our conversation.
I landed in Lincoln in the late afternoon, on a bright and sunny August 11, 1979. Fall semester would start two days later. I was met at the airport by a third-year graduate student, “AD” and a postdoc, “PG”, from the lab of my intended research advisor. Both were from India. Moreover, I was going to be an apartment mate of theirs in Lincoln as well.
Since it was almost typical dinner time in this country, they drove me in their shared two-door Ford Maverick straight to a “Denny’s” in downtown. I came from a Bengali family and was used mostly to regular Bengali food back in Calcutta. But I did not have any qualms about ordering a cheeseburger with fries and a small salad and finished it off with a chocolate milkshake. I was hungry. I would never know the real reason why they did not take me back to the apartment and feed me a regular Bengali meal. Little did they know that I would be fine with either. At that time, they also did not know that I had spent two and a half years as a child in this country, so I was reasonably familiar with this country and its people, their eating habits and customs. I was also quite familiar with the “American” spoken English. Admittedly, these factors perhaps gave me a heads-up over the many foreign students who come from other countries who were initially apprehensive of being in an alien land for the first time. In contrast, I was prepared to hit the ground running.
The three-bedroom apartment which I was to share with AD and PG was on the second floor of a two-story house -- old but well maintained and in a nice neighborhood. The landlord, a single gentleman, lived on the first floor. I was shown to a fully furnished carpeted bedroom with a twin bed, a wooden desk with a table lamp, ample closet space and a large window facing the street. There were two more bedrooms, so everyone had their own, but only one bathroom to share. We were all single at that time.
The next day was a Sunday and my apartment-mates’ laundry day. Although I did not need to go, I still accompanied them to the public laundromat not too far away. While waiting there, AD spent his time going over research articles xeroxed off from journals, while PG lazily turned the pages of magazines lying on a table there. Since I did not go prepared to do anything, I just sat and stared at the drying machines’ tumblers with glass ports revolving which lulled me to doze off, the effects of jet lag. Thereafter, this weekly laundry day was a community activity for us, and we all went together, but I always remembered to take some reading materials and looked busy like everyone else there.
On Monday morning, August 13, I duly showed up at the Chemistry Department at Hamilton Hall at 8:30 am to participate in the mandatory orientation activities for new graduate students, viz., course enrollments and assignment of teaching assistant (TA) responsibilities. I was given two lecture (“recitation”) classes and a Saturday morning Chemistry lab, the former for second year undergraduates and the lab for a freshman class. There was not much activity planned for the afternoon on this first day, so I attended the Chemistry department’s monthly seminar where speakers from other institutions were invited, including from other countries as well.
And lo and behold, who was the speaker on the first day of my attendance at the department seminar? Professor Chatterjee, my Organic Chemistry professor from Jadavpur University whose last class I had attended as an undergraduate seven years ago! We were both equally surprised to see each other in a foreign environment so far from Calcutta, and felt a sense of connection that was different from what we had as a student and a teacher in India. It was more formal in India, as is the usual norm there. We chatted for a while after his lecture and the chemistry department chairman, upon whose invitation Prof. Chatterjee had come, asked me to join the private dinner later in honor of the invited speaker. What a treat it was for me on the very first day of my graduate student experience in this country. Right place at the right time! A day I shall never forget.
Although initially I was not too pleased with a Saturday morning teaching assignment, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Within the first two weeks of the semester, nearly half the Saturday morning students had transferred to other weekday classes and I ended up with a residue of only eight students. The fewer the number of students, the less work it would be for me as a teacher, especially for a lab. Besides being able to sleep in late on weekends, another overwhelming reason for students' dislike of Saturday day classes was that on alternate Saturdays Nebraska’s college football home games were on; and thus many students would rather be at the game cheering for their home team than be in a Chemistry lab!
Remarkably, on football Saturdays, the full stadium (with its longest record of consecutive sellout home games) had, during game time, the third largest population in the entire state, behind only Omaha and Lincoln! The reverberation of their cheers when Nebraska scored extended far beyond the stadium. The sempiternal devotion that Nebraskans had for their football team was indeed intriguing.
An incident I recall during my early days of lab teaching was when an African female student complained to me about her weekly quiz score, she thought it should have been higher. This is a common complaint by students in America about their test scores and if not adequately and satisfactorily resolved often referred to the higher echelons of the department. However, I managed it deftly and showed her the deficiencies and the path to overcome them. which she did subsequently. I learnt that this student was receiving some scholarship from her country in Africa, the continuance of which depended on her grades and academic progress and hence her concern.
Between the two oral classes and the lab, preparing and grading exams and my office hours, I had to devote about seventeen/eighteen hours per week of my time for my assistantship from the Chemistry Department. Tuition was free and other administrative costs, books etc. were too. With a monthly stipend of $575 in 1979 in Lincoln, Nebraska and sharing an apartment with two others who I meshed with very well, I was worry free financially and managed to save a little as well.
Overall, Lincoln was very conducive to a student. A typical American mid-western university town, Omaha was the largest city in Nebraska and more lively. Omaha had another University of Nebraska campus which housed the medical school. There were several Indians and some Bengalis around at UN-L, most of them connected with the University in some capacity or the local hospitals as medical professionals.
In the very first year of my arrival and barely two months later, I was invited to a “Bijoya Sammelan” party hosted by a Bengali family, although no community Durga Puja was celebrated in Lincoln then. Other single Bengali students from UN-L, like myself, were there too as well as a few post docs and couples. It was a friendly gathering where we all spoke only in Bengali and relived the nostalgia of the Durga puja season back in India. It was with this Bengali family that I established a friendship and relationship which still exists today after forty-two years. I had accompanied this family on many road trips from Lincoln to several places: Yellowstone National Park, Kansas City where I heard Victor Borge perform live in an outdoor arena, the Ozarks in Missouri, and the memorable Teton ranges in Wyoming.
My very first trip outside Lincoln came in December 1979 when PG and I drove to Las Vegas for a few days of merriment. This was during Christmas break, although most graduate students do not typically enjoy one; many continue working in their labs even during this season. I did not have a driver’s license then’ so PG did all the driving’ which was actually quite a lot. On the way we picked up another postdoc friend of PG from Denver, where we spent a night before proceeding to Las Vegas the following day.
The glitz and glamor of Las Vegas is known to all and has endured through the ages. One thing that struck me then was that food prices in most restaurants were low. Of Course! Money was meant to be spent on Blackjack and slots in the casinos, not on food! My enthusiasm and bravado (“When in Rome, be a Roman.”) emboldened me to try my luck on the nickel and quarter slot machines. I remember distinctly that in my first move, when I put a single nickel in the slot machine and pulled the lever, I was wide-eyed with amazement when three nickels were spitted out onto a tray! My first ever hand at gambling and that too at the Bellagio, one of the most famous casinos in the world! Thereafter, I tried my luck on the quarter machine too. When it eventually dawned upon me that I was wagering with my assistantship money, no matter how little, I stopped. My cumulative loss was twenty-one dollars over two days; I could easily live with that in my conscience.
During next year’s Christmas break (1980) I made a trip to Des Moines, Iowa to visit Judy and her husband Dale. Judy is the daughter of my father’s research advisor John Milbrath at Oregon State University when my father was a graduate student there during 1958-1960. She heard about my coming back to this country to Lincoln and invited me to spend a few days during Christmas. I took a Greyhound bus from Lincoln to Des Moines. They lived in a rural area about 20/25 miles from the city.
I got there on Christmas eve and they asked me to accompany them to Mass at their Catholic church that night. My first ever and only attendance at a Mass. That was a solemn event for me. I held a liturgical book in my hand and inconspicuously looked around and tried to lip what others were reading or singing. Sadly, I wasn’t fully sure which pages to follow from. I felt a bit like a fish out of water but participated respectfully and solemnly. Amen!
Another first for me was seeing a skunk being kept as a pet, but of course it had been de-scented first. Judy and Dale did not have any children then and the cuddly and playful pet appeared to fill some void in their lives.
On the return bus trip to Lincoln, I encountered a unique experience. A fellow passenger sitting immediately behind, who may have been mildly inebriated, asked me which “tribe” I belonged to when he had overheard that I was an Indian, from a chat I was having with my next seat passenger. Amid some laughter from the others around, he was told that I was the other kind of Indian hailing from Asia. I wasn’t sure if he still got that.
I kept sporadic contacts with several of our friends in Corvallis -- friendships made during my parents’ and my stay there from 1958-1960; but it was not until 1986 that I first revisited Corvallis after twenty six years. I was in New Jersey then and working.
Into the third semester of my graduate studies, I made a strategic decision. I changed my specialization from Biochemistry back to Physical Chemistry and in the process, a change of my research advisor too. For many years dating back to my years at Jadavpur University, I wanted to be involved in spectroscopic research. Three UN-L Chemistry professors including my to-be advisor had obtained a National Science Foundation funding to establish a regional instrumental facility in mass spectrometry, thus forming the Midwest Center for Mass Spectrometry at UN-L in 1978. The director of this facility consented to be on my supervisory and dissertation committee, and I was given full access to all the center’s facilities, as an addendum to my own research lab also devoted to mass spectrometry. As a consequence, some tactical changes ensued: a move to a different research lab but in the same building, and preparing and presenting a new “OPO'' (Original Proposal Oral) outlining my intended line of research to my new dissertation committee.
Fortunately, my new advisor offered me a research assistantship (RA) right away and hence I had no more teaching responsibilities and could devote more of my time towards research alone. Besides, another seventy-five dollars being added to my monthly stipend was a bonus too. My stipend would come out of his grant which was funded by the US Department of Energy. One negative was that the total duration to obtain my doctoral degree took about a year longer than initially anticipated because of this change. The consolation, I gave myself later...what’s one year in a lifetime? Needless to say, I did undergo some months of worries and additional stress during that period of transition, but everything turned out well.
My new research group consisted of, besides myself, two graduate students -- one from Taiwan who was graduating in a few months, and the second an American, who was three years ahead into the doctoral program than I. Finally, there were also two postdocs, Toshi from Japan and Theo from the Netherlands. Additionally, we had a visiting scientist from Japan who would come and work collaboratively but temporarily with my advisor using UN-L’s mass spectrometry facilities and try to publish a paper from that collaboration. A truly globally diverse group of researchers.
The graduate student, Jerry, three years my senior, was Jewish with a live-in Korean girlfriend and Theo, the Dutch postdoc, had a live-in Taiwanese girlfriend, adding further to the racial and ethnical diversity to this group. I was the lone “Asian” Indian, with neither a wife nor a live-in girlfriend of any nationality. The opportunity to mingle simultaneously with individuals from different countries and cultures was a rewarding experience for me and which I will always cherish.
In my dissertation, I acknowledged the help I received in particular from Toshi, the Japanese postdoc. He was a real asset to our research group. The last I knew, he was the department head at a university in Japan. Theo went back to the Netherlands long ago, his stint as a postdoc at UN-L was not that fruitful, and I have no knowledge of what he has been up to since then. Jerry, who graduated about two years before I, served in the US army in their research lab in Aberdeen, Maryland for a few years followed by employment in the pharmaceutical industry. He now lives a retired life in New Jersey. He never married his long time Korean girlfriend though but someone else who I never met.
A quick note about my research advisor. He was a stoutly built Austrian, who I saw very little in the lab; he was far too occupied with administrative duties, having climbed to become the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. His office was in a separate building altogether and I had to call his secretary beforehand to let him know that I needed to see him for whatever reason. Unless he was in one of his daily meetings, rarely did he fail to meet me. Actually, he enjoyed those sessions discussing research findings with his graduate students and postdocs. A welcome break from his pile of administrative duties.
Almost every Friday late afternoons, my advisor and his research group went to a particular bar in downtown Lincoln where he invariably ordered a pitcher of pale lager beer for the group. Shelled peanuts, of course, came free with it. He usually left after his first glass while the rest of us continued our relaxing time together, without being in the lab. Theo and Jerry would then go back to their apartments and to their waiting girlfriends; Toshi and I would head back to the lab to get some more experiments done.
I continued to live with my initial apartment mates, AD and PG, till the former graduated with a doctorate and moved out of the state for a postdoctoral stint. PG and I then moved to a fancier two-bedroom apartment. By then I also had my own car, a Mazda with a rotary engine. I learnt later, the hard way, that rotary engines had notorious problems, but I was not aware of that when I purchased the car from a Taiwanese undergraduate student for seven hundred dollars. I am sure he knew! Later I bought a used Buick Skylark, again for seven hundred dollars, which served me longer and even transported me and my belongings from Nebraska to New Jersey.
Apart from the pleasure trips I made from Lincoln during my stay there, I also attended, with my fellow lab mates, scientific conferences in our field, viz., conferences hosted by The American Society for Mass Spectrometry. These were annually hosted in different cities; starting from the 1981 conference in Minneapolis, I had attended subsequent ones in Boston, San Antonio and San Diego. These trips were fully funded by my advisor’s grant and we missed only the one in Honolulu in 1982; only my advisor attended that one, too expensive for the entire lab to go. Notably, it was at the 1985 San Diego conference where I had an informal interview with my prospective employer based in New Jersey.
By the time 1982 came and I was about three years into my graduate program, PG also headed to California with an offer from a small company there. Both the two individuals who I first met at the airport on my arrival in Lincoln and lived with for three years were gone. I decided to live by myself, so I moved into a very small one-bedroom studio apartment. My apartment and two others like it were on the second floor of a brick building; an auto parts shop occupied the entire first floor, whose owner was also our landlord.
In late summer of the same year, I made a four-week trip to Calcutta to visit my parents. My advisor continued to pay me through my month of absence, which he had the option of not doing. To see my parents after three years and many of my college buddies from JU was indeed very heart-warming and nostalgic. There was catching up to do! I met a new member of our joint family, a three-year-old niece, the daughter of my eldest cousin. She was born soon after I had left for the USA in 1979. I allowed myself to be spoiled at home by my parents until it was time again to leave and make the long trip back to America. I did not know when I would see them again and I was gloomy the entire return trip.
It behooves me to mention that winters in Nebraska are quite brutal. Two-week spans of continuous subzero temperatures (day and night) were not unusual, having to navigate the gelid roads was a nightmare, and car batteries going dead were very common. Wind chill factors with the cold Canadian winds blowing south made for bone numbing cold. To circumvent the inconvenience of a dead battery, I, like some others, disconnected it at the end of the day whenever such extreme temperatures were forecast and kept it inside during the night. The ritual was completed the next morning by reconnecting the battery and then driving off to the lab. It was a tedious solution to the problem. I had AAA membership, but one can only imagine how overwhelmed they were with calls from distressed people with dead batteries and other extreme cold related problems. If I had to wait for their services, I would most likely miss a day in the lab and this would perhaps happen on each icy day.
In the summer of 1984, the first Bengali family that I had met in Lincoln and grown extremely attached to did move to Maryland. That was an emotional parting.
The final year of my doctoral program had the usual assurances from my advisor -- “You need to do this experiment and you'll be done” -- and this was repeated several times. Most graduate students go through this phase till they finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, so my experience was no exception. In July 1985 I had finally finished all my requirements and successfully defended my thesis to my dissertation committee. Once I got the last of their five signatures, the first being my advisor’s, on my dissertation, I was finally on the top of the world!
It’s difficult to describe the gamut of emotions I experienced at that moment, but elation and relief were most prominent; but I also felt a tide of loneliness. The people I was close to in Lincoln -- AD, PG and the first Bengali family I had met in Lincoln -- had all moved to different locations in this country. I had no one special that I could celebrate and share my achievement with, especially in a country far away from my own. My thoughts drifted to my parents back in Calcutta and in particular my father, who I was certain experienced similar sensations when he completed his graduate studies at Oregon State University in 1960. In contrast though, he had my mother and me with him.
I called home and spoke with my parents. They had just sat down with their morning tea there; and here my TV Dinner was warming up in the oven. I had bought a relatively expensive gourmet one specially for that day.
I dedicated my dissertation to my parents for their constant encouragement, inspiration, and undying love and also for enduring my long absence away from home.
“Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life” .... Albert Einstein
(Author’s note: Some names have been deliberately altered to protect those individuals’ identities)
(Posted April 10, 2021)
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A Graduate Student in the “Cornhusker” State
Pradip R. Das
During the period between August 1958 and December 1960, I lived in Corvallis, Oregon. This chapter of my life has been narrated in an earlier story, “Twice in America'', in a previous issue of ImmigrantBengalis.com (February 1, 2021), so I will not delve into it again in detail. At that time, I had accompanied both my parents to America because of my father who came for his doctoral degree at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). I went to grade schools in Corvallis, and both my parents and I made lifelong friends from that stay and felt very welcome. During that visit as a child, I was part of my father’s chronicle of life in this country. It was my first introduction to America, its people and customs and our successful assimilation into the American society at that time. It was a temporary stay but never forgotten.