I hadn’t really realized the impact of what I was about to feel till I had reached the venue to collect my convocation gear. It was a crowd out there, with people busy distributing, collecting, or posing in their gowns. I held the packet they gave me, with everything they had put- my convocation gown and cap, and the numerous other things I was entitled to as an alumni- free passes for football matches I was never going to attend, free coupons at the nearby Mexican eateries, and a car license plate with my status of being an alumni imprinted on it. I have never had a convocation before. Needless to say, the feeling was very new, and “foreign” to me. I came from a place where you were just another face among the thousands of other people getting their degrees. Some professors remembered your face only if you got famous in the process, made it to the US, were the minister’s daughter, or something like that. I came from a place where professors had no official email ids, and some of them still wrote about you being “known to have a good character” in their recommendation letters.
I held my gown for a long time in the restroom, waiting to change for the photo shoot. The first time I tried, I could not even wear it properly. Then there was the cap with the tassel and “2008” marked on it. I was to keep this with me forever, so that the future generations in my family could remember what a luminary I had been. A good soul in the restroom offered to help me wear the gown properly. Within minutes, they had asked me to look at a certain angle at a certain imaginary dot on the wall, and my photo was clicked. Back in India, the only people I had seen being convoked are the graduates from IITs or IIMs, whose photos their moms and our neighbors proudly showed of. I had always wondered how cool it must feel to prance around in one of these attires while your mom showed off your picture to the other neighbors. Now, I knew.
The convocation was still a week away, but I could not get enough of the excitement after that. I was not really prepared for what to expect during my convocation. Then there were ceremonies organized by the school, where they reiterated how important and invaluable I have been to the program. I listened to them in amazement, wondering what was there to make a big deal out of it. Blame it on the place I hail from, where unless you are the topper or the daughter of a minister (or both usually), you fade out into the crowd of nothingness.
With pride, I stood on stage in my blue sari, the symbol of my Indian-ness, that had taken me a good half an hour to wear without help. I was the sole representative of India in the departmental ceremony. On the main day, I proudly cat-walked the outdoor stadium in my gown, smiling, waving, and throwing flying kisses to imaginary people like the others did as if I was some Miss.Universe in the making. No words can describe the thrill and the sense of worthiness you feel when you go up the stage in front of a packed stadium and shake hands with the dean. Photos were clicked and congratulatory wishes offered, champagne flowed, the smell of good food wafted the air, my advisor and chair patted my back and congratulated me, friends hugged me and offered me pretty floral bouquets, and I took in everything, feeling like a celebrity. Gifts and cards have been pouring in ever since, and my home looks like a Botanical garden and a gift shop now.
It took me back to the days in India when mom and dad had a different future planned for me. I am sure that their intentions were noble and well-meant. But as a 22 year old, all scared and confused and not knowing what to do in life, I used to have sleepless nights wondering how do I deal with the situation and accept the fact that I might end up being a nobody. The matchmaking process had just started, and somehow I found the idea of flying to a different country with a spouse very obnoxious and unpalatable for me. Many people choose to do it, but the idea of living in an alien country where I would not be permitted to work and where a husband would give me a credit card as a gift was an envisioning of a sad existence for me. Five years later, there is a credit card, but no husband. I still have issues finding a job and the tension of leading the penurious graduate student life. But deep within there is this sense of worthiness that I was fortunate enough to achieve what so many others would long to, to go to graduate school, to contribute in my own minuscule way to the advancement of science. It’s a trade-off, I gave up on the security of a married life, incurred the wrath of my family when I told them to stop deciding my future for me, packed my bags, and landed here, but it’s a tremendous sense of achievement nevertheless. When I talk about achievement, I am not referring to the numerous classes I have taken, the new concepts I have learnt, the grades, my GPA, the contacts with people I made here, and the degree I earned in the process. I am not talking about how I learnt about cultural competency, social capital, and heat shock proteins in class. I am referring to the sense of achievement I feel of having taken a decision for myself and sticking to it, of all the effort I have put up trying to place myself in a new country, new situation, among new people, of all those nights of studying hard and the early mornings spent in lab wishing that my work will be appreciated and I will be accepted as one among them. I feel a sense of achievement for having dared to challenge the fate others had chosen for me, and for proving dad wrong when he said that I wouldn’t survive for more than a month here, not knowing how to cook or take care of myself. I made mistakes, and I learnt from them. I made bad friends, and I made good friends too. I went through my normal share of miseries, and more. I lost hair and put on pounds as a token of being a part of the “stressed American society”. But whenever the going got tough and I thought I could take it no longer, I asked myself to hold on to hope for a little more.
I don’t see a problem with any lifestyle we choose. What’s important is we choose it, taking full responsibility of the consequences. We all make mistakes, and there is no shame in failing. Friends and family are always there for opining and advising. But at the end of the day, I have realized that it makes so much sense to decide things for yourselves and then stick to your decisions.
Today, I have a masters degree from one of the best schools in the US. Here from, I know I can do anything I want to. I can find work, I can get married and still work, or I can go get another degree in something I have wanted to study. And what I take back with me isn’t my degree and my convocation gown and cap and the license plate I’ll have to wait to use it till I learn to drive. What I take back with me is 2 years of rich experience, little successes and failures, lots of memories of going to graduate school, of numerous friends made, and mostly importantly, the realization that I have the power to envision my own life and shape it the way I want to. Like someone told me sarcastically- “You have become an American in every sense. You are all of “individualism” now".