Students Abroad: A Virtual Roundtable

Meet four Purdue Engineering students: two American-grown (Paul Imel and Laura Palac), one from Kenya (Patrick Ndai) and one from India (Rachit Biyani).

Paul is currently in Germany; Laura, in Mexico; Patrick and Rachit, at Purdue. What's it like to live, work, and study so far from home? Below, through e-mails, these students give us a glimpse

Q. How long is the flight from your home base to the place you're at now?

Patrick: Approximately 22 hours.
Rachit: About 18 to 19 hours of flying time and 9 to 10 hours of waiting at the various airports.
Laura: Between 4 to 5 hours.
Paul: Between 8 and 9 hours.

Q. What's been the biggest surprise or biggest adjustment thus far?

Patrick: Having to drive everywhere. In Kenya, literally everything is in the neighborhood, e.g., grocery stores, hospitals, etc. The other shocking thing is that there are few family-owned businesses. In Kenya, most stores are owned by one of your neighbors and not by a corporation.
Rachit: The biggest adjustment would have to be food. Back in India, the staple diet for more people is rice. Besides, I am also a vegetarian, so the options of dishes is pretty limited for me! During my first year in the dorms, I didn't particularly like the food, since not a whole lot of vegetarian food was available, and mostly what I ate was fast food. Now that I stay off campus, I cook more often than I eat out.
Laura: The amazing warmth and friendliness of the people [in Mexico].
Paul: The biggest adjustment is not being able to express myself effectively. Even [if] you know enough German to start a conversation, it doesn't mean you know enough to finish it without crashing and burning and leaving both parties dazed and confused.

Q. What kind of language barriers are there?

Patrick: None.
Rachit: Well, initially there were some problems regarding my accent. People found it hard to understand what I was saying, and sometimes it was really embarrassing! The pronunciation of certain words I found to be different here, for example, the words route and often.
Laura: Not much more than a few words here and there.
Paul: Lots of Americans think that most Europeans can speak English. Some do (mainly the younger crowd), some know a little, and some know none at all. It's a safer bet to just assume the person doesn't speak English and try your best in German until they seem to understand or suddenly start talking in English. (I guess I have quite the American accent.)

Patrick Ndai

Major: Electrical and Computer Engineering
Year in college: PhD student
Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya
Institution currently attending: Purdue
Speaks which languages: Kiswahili, English, Kikuyu
Future plans: Kenyan politics

Q. What differences in culture are most striking?

Patrick: I find it strange that even though someone might not particularly like you, they still use "please," "thank you," etc., and say it with a smile on their faces. At first, it was particularly difficult to understand whether someone was happy with you or mad at you.
Rachit: In the U.S., there are two major languages, English and Spanish, whereas in India we have 23 official languages. The lifestyles are pretty different. For example, in India we just have Sundays as holidays, whereas here Saturdays and Sundays are both holidays. And the sports we play are different. In India, cricket is the national sport. Here, there's football (not soccer) and baseball.
Laura: Stress is something that barely exists here. The typical attitude is very passive, easygoing.
Paul: I see many wind farms on the train through the country to work. People here are very environmentally conscious. I'm often told of the very cold, snowy winters Berlin used to get 12 to 15 years ago. People blame the change on global warming. So along with this, people recycle everything, and much more meticulously sort garbage into various recycling bins.

Laura Palac

Major: Mechanical Engineering
Year in college: Junior
Hometown: Strongsville, Ohio
Institution currently attending: ITESM (Technolgico de Monterrey, Mexico) with the GEARE program
Speaks which languages: English and Spanish
Future plans: To apply the experience I have gained with GEARE to a future global career.

Q. How is education or work different from what you've experienced in your home country?

Patrick: The classrooms are significantly smaller here, and the facilities are present and in working condition. Kenya's classrooms are much larger, and facilities don't always work.
Rachit: In India, education is more theory-based, whereas there is a practical aspect to education here. Even the textbooks have more illustrations and application than would be found in a textbook back home. Most good universities here were established in the late 1800s or early 1900s, whereas in India, the good universities were very recently established. Back in India, it is extremely competitive to get into a really good college like the IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology], given that the number of good colleges is not a lot. The system of education is very flexible here, i.e., you can change your major easily, and you can do a whole lot of courses that are not related to your major in any way. In India it's really hard to change your major once you begin.
Laura: The Tec is a private school, and they keep track of everything. It is very much like a high school atmosphere. The textbooks are often the same editions as the ones at Purdue, and in English, but oftentimes they only contain SI [metric] units. There is about 20 percent as much homework per week as there is at Purdue.
Paul: People seem to not prefer vague, open-ended assignments or requests like my Canadian colleagues and I are used to across the Atlantic; they seem to prefer them to be detailed and have systematic steps toward a definitive goal. Not that they need things spelled out for them" they just seem to prefer more organization. People here are also extremely focused on their work while on the clock. I don't see quite as much joking and socializing as I have in American companies. But they are still very friendly and as productive as anywhere else.

Q. What do you like best and least about the country you're currently in?

Patrick: Best: That the systems work, e.g., no potholes on the roads, mails delivered on time, the DMV is (sort of) efficient, etc. Basically, that institutions do what they are there for. Least: I don't like dealing with corporations, particularly if I have to call a customer service rep.
Rachit: What I like best: Times Square, New York City. There's no place like that in the world. What I like the least: the cars (I don't really like GM and Ford).
Laura: The food: It tastes amazing, but it can also be the source of various digestive problems.....
Paul: Best: The fact that Germany affords me the opportunity to try new things. Least: Although Berlin, compared to other major European cities, has somewhat lower cost of living, everything except the 30-cent loaves of bread at the corner Turkish bakery seems to be rather expensive. To use a public restroom almost always costs money. And overall, the euro/dollar exchange rate has not been kind to me.

Rachit Biyani

Major: Electrical and Computer Engineering
Year in college: Junior
Hometown: Calcutta, India
Institution currently attending: Purdue
Speaks which languages: English, German, Hindi, and Bengali
Future plans: Will think about it after I graduate!

Q. Any preconceptions of the country you're in now that were confirmed? Overturned?

Patrick: Confirmed: That some Americans are spoilt, which leads them to become quite smug and, sadly, quite ignorant about anything beyond their borders.
Overturned: I always assumed that in a country with so much, there would be no poor/homeless people. Quite true in Lafayette but not in major metropolitan cities.
Rachit: I had always thought of America as being a cultural melting pot, with diverse and disparate group of people. After coming here and meeting so many people, my notion has certainly been confirmed. There are so many cultures I found here that for once I forgot which continent I was in.
Laura: Monterrey is very close to the border, so the culture here is very similar to that of the USA. I was surprised that it was not more "Mexican."
Paul: Confirmed: The beer and food taste great, the girls are pretty, the rail and bus system is amazing, and the soccer fans are hardcore.
Overturned: People don't wear lederhosen on a regular basis.

Paul Imel

Major: Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering
Year in college: Junior
Hometown: Portland, Indiana
Institution currently attending: Currently an intern with Pratt & Whitney Canada Customer Service Center Europe; in the summer, will be studying at Universitt Karlsruhe in southern Germany. All of this was made possible by the GEARE program.
Speaks which languages: English like a native, and broken German (but I'm getting better)
Future plans: Short-term: Learn German well enough to talk to the local girls. Long-term: Die with a smile on my face. In between: Hopefully graduate before I retire so I can get a fun and interesting job in the aerospace field (Maybe one that involves using my hopefully improved German) and live out the rest of the American Dream.

Q. What's the benefit of study in another country? Would you do it again? Would you recommend it to other students?

Patrick: I've come to learn how to deal with people [of] different cultures and races. I'd definitely do it again. In fact, I think everyone should take the time to visit another country that is vastly different from their own. Despite the cost, such an experience allows you to learn what is good about your country and how to change what's not.
Rachit: This international experience is certainly very beneficial. I have met so many people from the different parts of the world and learnt about their cultures. I have a better idea about the lifestyle of people in the U.S.

This has given me a much greater exposure to the world, the way things work in different places.

Laura: Any type of international experience. It helps you to appreciate what the world has to offer, both in your home country and in a foreign one. In the U.S.A. right now there is such a push for integration, but this type of tolerance cannot be taught better than [through] an international experience. It is best learned, like everything, in practice.
Paul: So far so good. The biggest benefit is everything is different. Living in North America, we sometimes forget that there is a whole rest of the world out there besides what we see on the news. And in today's shrinking world, a little understanding can go along way. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

–Interviews by Lisa Hunt Tally