By Jyoti Iyer
As an 18-year old, I joined North Dakota State University (NDSU) for a B.S. program in Biotechnology. My journey from Mumbai, India to Fargo, North Dakota was a long and arduous journey. I found myself in a foreign country without any friends or family. I went from the hot and humid climate of Mumbai to the extreme cold and snowy weather of North Dakota. Being a vegetarian in North Dakota was challenging. I remember one funny incident when I asked the server for vegetarian food and they brought me rice with pieces of bacon in it.
Although English is the major language of instruction in India, my Professors spoke with a different accent than Americans. Consequently, during my first couple of semesters, I found it hard to understand my Professors’ accents in my classes. I remember an instance when one of my Professors kept mentioning in their lecture, “let’s put this on the back burner” and I had no idea what he meant! Many terms and phrases, especially those that were of a colloquial nature made lectures challenging to follow.
The cultures of the east and the west are quite different. As a young woman, growing up in India, I was encouraged to focus my attention on my studies and limit my interactions with men. During my first semester while I was living in the dormitories, I had a roommate whose boyfriend was in our room (about 180 square feet in area) throughout the day, 7 days a week. This was a huge culture shock for me. To adjust to this situation, I spent all of my time during the day either in the library or in the common dorm lounge in the basement.
Everything seemed exorbitantly expensive in the United States. International students have a tendency to convert all their US Dollar purchases into their home currency. Since 1 US Dollar was at that time equivalent to about 50 Indian Rupees, every time I purchased two bean burritos at Taco Bell, I was shelling out about 95 Indian Rupees. To give you an idea, one Indian Burger (Wada Pav) at that time cost 8 Indian Rupees. So, one could have a full meal of two Wada Pavs in 16 Indian Rupees.
I was raised in a middle-class Indian family and my Mom had spent all of her retirement savings on sending me to college in the USA. Since my parents were already paying for my tuition, I did not want to ask them for any additional money to support my living expenses. As an international student, I was only allowed to work on-campus and that too, for a maximum of 20 hours per week. After unsuccessfully hunting for jobs for over two months, I finally found a job as an undergraduate assistant in the laboratory of Dr. Ronald Hutchison who was a Professor for my Introductory Biology course. I received a wage of $6.25 per hour for my work in the lab. I performed several tasks in the lab from washing dishes, making buffers and performing experiments such as cloning, site-directed mutagenesis and protein purification.
My love for research began in Dr. Hutchison’s laboratory. Having a supportive and encouraging undergraduate mentor like Dr. Hutchison was instrumental in solidifying my decision to pursue a future career in biomedical research. I graduated Summa Cum Laude from NDSU, obtained a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, undertook a 6-year postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH and finally obtained a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Tulsa in 2018.
I have now been in the US for over 20 years (for a longer time than I have spent in India). After my experience as an immigrant to the USA, I realize how challenging it is for International students and researchers to thrive and be successful here in the USA. As an Assistant Professor, I share my experiences with my students, especially those that are struggling, to let them know that they are not alone in their struggles and that in the end, they will win the battle!