In India, the idea of an education abroad is a highly romanticised one. It is desired by many and those with the means tend to make this investment. A degree from a European or American school is considered worthier and that which opens more doors than one obtained at home. This notion is largely shared not only by aspiring individuals and families but also organizations and companies looking to hire them. This has resulted in an extremely competitive zeal among several classes in the country who begin to gear up early on for a cumbersome process that may ultimately land them in a reputed school of their choice.
The question to be asked then is this: Is the degree abroad worth the finances, effort and stress? The answer to this question varies; however my personal experience along with many of my Indian cohorts in this endeavour tilts towards dissatisfaction. At the end of the day, it seems that the extraordinarily high tuition fees, costs of living and stresses of immersing oneself in the foreign culture does not quite reap them the returns they had imagined. So, I implore.
For me, this experience was of an assorted kind and not a homogenous one. I had the opportunity to spend two years in two different countries studying at two different schools. This also meant completely different education systems that had different types of workloads, assessment mechanisms and often, composition. Both France and England presented a fresh set of challenges that seemed insurmountable at times. For obvious reasons of school-related deadlines and administrative hurdles that one must overcome, the adjustment period is short. One can, by all means, prolong this adjustment period however it only interferes with other commitments that one must pay close attention to.
In France, the first barrier to functioning is the language. While schools looking to attract foreign students to maintain an ‘international’ status retain staff that can speak functional English to try and make their experience easier, the rest of the country does not subscribe to this idea. This is not the space to bring up the resistance of the French towards English as the language that is the most global, but it certainly warrants a mention as at its root lies the fundamental process of assimilation. During a conversation with a few French friends, I was told that their English remains imperfect despite having studied it for 6-8 consecutive years in school because the schools purposefully do a poor job of teaching the language. The reason is not because they are unable to find good teachers for the language but rather nationalist propaganda that disables students from perfecting it which may result in brain-drain in France. Moreover, I was also told by the same bunch that the French are a proud people and tend to be inviting when you assimilate into their culture rather than adopting the ways and language of another. This is of course not to say that they are unwelcoming of diversity. Regardless of this, it’s challenging when one seeks help at the supermarket or placing an order at a restaurant/café.
Secondly, the school I studied at enjoys a reputation nationally and internationally for its degrees and courses, but the lived experience for most of the students can be summed up in one phrase: mental health crisis. At all points in time, students were submerged in assignments and other projects that caused many a breakdown. Most students I met here were extremely capable, driven and ambitious people. They tackled these consecutive and overlapping assignments but remained largely dissatisfied with their performance, often feeling like they could have delivered something qualitatively better had they had more time. It sounds like a typical excuse of someone who shirks their work a lot and often leaves it to the last moment (me), but in this case, the feeling was shared by the hardworking as well as the smart-working. Those from similar systems slid into it with a fair amount of ease but the others not so much. The school demanded we take about eight subjects per semester, not factoring in extracurricular projects one was a part of, each of which had several assignments throughout the semester. These could be research papers, presentations, group projects and/or weekly policy briefs. Every professor had the power to set their own assessment criteria so apart from the aforementioned, there could simply be a portion of marks dedicated to attendance or class participation.
Numerous subjects with numerous assignments per semester led me to ask the question: what am I mastering in? I seemed to be doing a range of things, often because I was required to take some subjects compulsorily but mastering none and only gaining a semblance of practical knowledge. On asking an academic staff member, I was told brusquely that they believed that students should be able to talk on several subjects/issues for a few minutes rather than being able to speak on one or two for a full hour. I did not share that belief but my primary concern, after this extraordinarily long digression, is that of mental health. Breakdowns were a more than a common occurrence, and the school was ill-equipped when it came to counselling services for students and staff. It was impossible to get an appointment with the counsellor and/or psychologist who was available only a couple of times in the week and was always fully booked. C’est la vie? Je ne pense pas!
Finally, the bureaucratic requirements to overcome are many. Long-drawn residence permit appointments, redeeming social welfare in a timely fashion benefits and getting registered at your local hospital etc. to name a few mandated processes which one must keep tabs on along with your primary school requirements. The French bureaucracy is undoubtedly slow and inefficient. Much of their tasks are still to be carried out by paper/post in a digital era, and this comes with delays and losses. It was a running joke among the Indian fraternity that the French bureaucracy made them miss the Indian one, the latter being notoriously famous for the same qualities.
Come the London year, I had become accustomed to many of the challenges that life in a European society may throw at you, but a constant one is that of combatting isolation. This is an issue most students coming from cultures that are tightly-knit in community and family life take time grappling with. Despite having made many friends in both the countries, differing deadlines, schedules and commitments of everyone around you can often leave one desiring the warm and comfortable embrace of long-time friend circles that one has left back home. New communication technology and social media here are a boon though cannot serve as replacements. Social media can often seem misleading as life in Europe is not as glamorous and dreamy as it may suggest. The most depressing of all? Cooking for one.
No longer having to face a language barrier, functioning here became simpler. The academic system is similar to the one in India, so this time it was I who slid into it easily. A gaping issue does remain, and here I speak for both the schools I attended. The content of all of these courses remains rooted in colonial values, and the literature remains largely Western. Diversity in ontology is missing, and this leads to a lot of cognitive dissonance for students coming from non-Western countries. All of a sudden, these students find themselves laden with the responsibility of representation, constantly having to speak up at every given opportunity at the Eurocentrism embedded in these institutions. One may think that social science disciplines may have grasped inclusiveness and reflexivity as principles, but more often than not it seems that propaganda has shadowed the need for their centrality. The lack of multiplicity in voices was deafening. All in all, a sub-optimal level of education and development.
This brings me to the final lap of this written soliloquy that has to do with sustenance and survival. Academic and administrative battles aside, much of the self-care goes for a toss. Coming from a family of comfortable means, I never had to do much cooking, washing or cleaning. Fortunately, my parents inculcated in me a set of values that included knowing how to do all of the above without complaint from time to time and never let me revel in total inactivity when it came to domestic chores. Despite having had the training, feeding and nourishing myself along with residential upkeep did make me realise that I had indeed been quick to call myself an adult. Coursework ends up assuming priority at most times, and this results in eating out, skipping meals or Maggi-meals, all of which eventually take a toll on the body and at some point, the mind.
To move continents away to another country is an overwhelming experience. It doesn’t matter where you relocate to, but overall, it’s a mixed bag of peaks and troughs. Mobility across Europe allows you to see beautiful places, meet new people and learn more about the world. Sometimes, these experiences are beset with racism, discrimination and ignorance. Whether or not you feel gloomy, the weather always will be. You realise your privilege and then some disadvantages. The Indian passport and its weakness will be affirmed several times in the pub. Your degree may often seem like one big prank that life played on you and also rendered you broke. Your personal growth spikes up, perspectives broaden and more often than not, you decide to stop and smell the roses. I suppose to conclude, I would flip the lens and say you don’t go for a degree and get some life experience alongside but rather go for the latter and toss in a degree or two in there.