Bridging the Gap


Deepak Sahoo, correspondent

A peek into the lives of foreign exchange students in campus.


The sky was clear, and the wind was calm, on Saturday, 8th October, when we set off on our trip to Mahabalipuram. Enjoying Tamil music in our air-conditioned minivan, everyone was in a good mood. All the fun and frolic, however, couldn’t deter me from asking curious questions to my companions in the trip, which consisted mostly of foreign exchange students.

Many people wonder why students from countries better funded for technical education would spend six months of their studies in India. It turns out that for those from Europe, India is a perfect balance between studies and cultural interaction. Students from Singapore, interestingly, chose India over Europe because the medium of instruction here is English, relieving them of the need to learn German or French.

This closed, walled campus was a surprise. The concept of a ‘campus’ is different in other countries – the residence is located away from the classrooms, and the students are responsible for their own food and domestic needs. Here, the hostel life is a luxury in many aspects, but is felt like a restriction sometimes. Also, the feeling of living 24×7 in college, close to professors and classrooms, is something new to the foreign students. Students from Singapore faced difficulty in getting used to life without air conditioning.

DSC07230While talking about Insti life, academics are the first to be discussed. Shaun (Aerospace Engineering, NTU, Singapore) appreciates the chalk-board method as the teacher can deliver the concepts, especially derivations better that way. Back home at NTU, all courses are taught through presentations. One advantage is that the professor uploads all the PPTs before lessons, so one can read them before class.

As we hopped from temple to temple, admiring the architecture, posing for photos, the talk about academics continued.

There is a general notion that students here give too much importance to CGPA. All of them laugh about how an 8.5 is considered better than an 8.4. Our friends aren’t too aware of the concept of ‘RG’, either.

Bay (Aerospace Engg, NTU, Singapore) is on a program that requires him to pursue masters-level courses here, which are quite tough to handle. Courses are too theoretical, he says; they need a more holistic approach, like practical demos and projects.

Surprisingly, the students opine that the class-size is very small here. Even a hundred students per class is too less at their institutes, where most courses can only be taught in huge lecture halls. The small strength ensures more personal attention from the professors and that the students are more than just roll numbers.

Watching the city and the diffused horizon from the high rocks beside the lighthouse is a special experience. Panoramic views put one in a rather philosophical mood.

Continuous evaluation is a deterrent, according to Leif (Mechanical Engg, RWTH Aachen University, Germany) and the competitive atmosphere only worsens it. He feels students don’t get enough time to indulge in their passions or to explore new interests. Back home, he only has an end-semester exam for his courses, and gets sufficient time to prepare during preparatory holidays. Attendance, though not compulsory, is fairly regular in the classes in his university. He is amused to hear that students in campus bunk classes strategically to make the most of the 85% attendance rule.

Robin (Mechanical Engg, RWTH Aachen University, Germany) feels that the professor enjoys lots of respect from the students here. His institute has a fixed time-slot allotted every week for students to meet the professors. Here, he feels, that system would be redundant, because the students can approach their teachers anytime. That’s the advantage of being in a residential campus, he says.

DSC07241Soheil (DoMS, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany) says that here, job experience isn’t compulsory, so he sees lots of fresh graduates in the MBA program. “Indian students want to finish all their studies in one go, and start concentrating on their careers”. He also adds that in Germany, many students drop out of college or take a break to try other interests, but here, it is like tradition to complete what one has started.

After observing the crowded city and campus, the students are intrigued at how it doesn’t deter activities and events. They appreciate the motivation with which Shaastra was conducted.

Our long-awaited lunch at a sea-side restaurant gave us a nice view of the beach. Experimentation was the theme of the day. From Calamari fried rice to banana pancakes, and from coffee to Kingfisher – the food was as diverse as the diners. A full stomach causes temporary immobility, which means more time for chitchat.

They feel that students don’t socialize much in masses here. But the interaction within hostels and wings makes up for it, they say.

Bay and Shaun say that the NCC/NSS/NSO system is similar to their own National Service in Singapore, and feel it is a necessary activity for students.

Inge (Humanities and Social Sciences, HS Bremen, Germany) finds there are too few girls in campus, and that she finds the attitude of male students towards the female ones ‘strange’. Boys in campus don’t seem to understand girls, and are also too shy, she states.

After lunch, we rushed to the beach to dive into the warm waves. Playing ball, running races, swimming into the deep – we could stay there forever.

The food court draws praise from Miriam (DoMS, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany), who finds it a good place to try out many Indian dishes. She complains, however, that the taste is not consistent, and the food gets too spicy sometimes. Bay chuckles that he was introduced to a new kind of Chinese food – the Indianised version. Zaitoon (which they call night-mess) and Gurunath are regular hangouts in campus, and the students like the open-air ambience at these joints.

There haven’t been many health issues. The only problem is mosquitoes, feels Inge, observing that 3 exchange students had suffered from dengue recently.

Apart from academics, the folks are making the most out of their stay in India. Trips to Vizag, Puducherry, Kerala and other destinations have been memorable experiences, says Philip (Computer Science and Engg., RWTH Aachen University, Germany), who is amazed by the number of languages spoken here.

A vendor on the seashore tried to market few sarees to the ladies, who found it difficult to understand her words. While English makes communication easier, the accent sometimes leads to confusion.

Internet timings are inconvenient, especially due to the 3:30 hour time difference between Germany and India. The students find it difficult to Skype with friends and family. “The frequency of buses is too low”, says Shaun, but also adds that he enjoys cycling in natural surroundings.

Bettina (DoMS, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany) says her inmates in Sarayu are cooperative and friendly. Even the prison-like Pampa hostel (Pampa-jail, as they fondly call it) feels lively with the warmth of healthy interaction.

At the end of the trip, as we return along the beautiful East Coast Road, we take back home more than just tans. The food, the temples, the lovely beach, and precious third-party opinions about IITM, made this trip a memorable one.

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