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Hartford: Where I Learned To Make My Way In America

Girish Rishi

May 01, 2011

I had never seen orange and purple colored leaves. As we drove down Prospect Avenue in Hartford, the leaves would come from nowhere, lightly bump on the windshield and fly away.

That is my first memory of America. A large canvas of blue skies, sloping roofs on houses and colorful leaves everywhere.

It was Sept. 4, 1990, and I was heading to the University of Hartford admissions office. I had recently turned 20. With one suitcase, a glossy visa on my new passport and a pouch filled with American dollars that my father managed to gather in foreign exchange-starved India, I took the midnight flight from Delhi to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

There was something important on my mind. I had no money for tuition past the first semester. I had little more than the absolute minimum to cover my living expenses beyond the first month.

The formula, as I was told, was that once you made it to the States you looked for work on campus to offset the steep tuition, and you lived modestly.

Having registered, I sat discovering a tuna salad sandwich at the Gengras cafeteria and heard there was an opening for a graduate assistant.

After lunch, I walked to the Barney School of Business and inquired about the position.

The chairwoman of the marketing department was seeking somebody with work experience and knowledge of computers. I had neither. Nonetheless, I got an interview the next day.

For my interview, I wore the only formal attire I had gray trousers, a light blue shirt, a tie and well-polished black shoes. I met the professor in her office. She asked a few questions about my qualifications and spent a majority of time getting to know me. We talked a bit about my research and writing skills.

As the interview ended, she broke in to a wide smile and said, "I would like you to be my graduate assistant. Why don't you think about it and let me know before the end of the week."

I uttered a simple "OK." We shook hands and I walked out. That afternoon, I accepted the position.

For two years, I worked long and hard. In my battered Toyota Tercel, I went to libraries around Connecticut enjoying the changing seasons, at times stopping for coffee and doughnuts in nondescript shops, and a beer and a burger in small taverns on my way back. I immersed myself in microfiche that took me back to the 19th century and learned as much about America as the topic at hand.

I made mistakes, but the professor never expressed displeasure or raised an eyebrow. I learned lessons that would come in handy in years to come hard work, trust, pursuit of perfection, kindness and respect.

All in all, the math worked out. Due to my undergraduate work in India, I received credit for some courses. To graduate, I needed another 12 courses for a total of $14,400. I paid $2,400 and the rest was covered by the graduate assistantship.

After graduating on May 18, 1992, I got in my Tercel still wearing my cap and gown and drove west toward San Jose, Calif., where I had a job.

Now, 21 years after arriving in Hartford, I am returning this month. The professor who helped underwrite my education is retiring. I am looking forward to seeing her, walking the hallways, visiting the library and, yes, treating myself to a tuna salad sandwich at the cafeteria.

I write this because recently there has been much talk about America and its sustainability as a world power. A burgeoning deficit, high unemployment and a changing geopolitical situation has analysts working their projections.

I have no economic predictions and struggle to look at America as an empire, and thus cannot be pulled in to a conversation about its "decline."

What I do have is this amorphous stuff that I shared above. I do not know of any other place in the world where people can have the experience I had more than two decades ago.

And the best part is that my story is hardly unique. Today, students from across America and the world go to American universities for an education that prepares them for their chosen field and instills values that will outlast any classroom lesson.

Spring is an opportune moment to acknowledge the strength of the university system as parents, family members and friends go to ceremonies honoring graduates.

In good and challenging times, universities should be supported by the government, the private sector, nonprofit foundations, alumni and community leaders. Places of higher education are the most promising platform to ensure that America remains the land of opportunity. It is the foundation for our children's tomorrows.

Girish Rishi of South Barrington, Ill., is corporate vice president and general manager of a business unit at Motorola Solutions, based in Chicago.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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