Originally from Mumbai, a bustling and metropolitan city in India, Sagar Basantani is quickly adapting to the quiet, rural setting as he enters his first year at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.
Before coming to the U.S., Basantani, 26, received his undergraduate degree in computer engineering from Mumbai University and worked as a technology consultant at Deloitte’s offices in Mumbai and briefly in London. The combination of experiencing the business side and wanting to learn something new inspired Sagar to take on a new path: to earn an MBA in Bloomington, Indiana, more than 8,000 miles away from home.
On his flight to Indianapolis, Basantani sat next to a passenger who began chatting with him. The stranger, who was formerly a teacher and now travels for a living, asked him how he feels about being in the U.S. at a time when Trump-talk has made many immigrants uneasy to be here. They exchanged stories about where they came from and more. The conversation left an impression on Basantani because it was not anything like what he had expected. Unlike people in India, Americans were a lot more open to conversation, he says. That feeling, so far, had been validated throughout his time in a small midwestern town dominated by a university.
FOR MANY INDIAN-APPLICANTS, A U.S. MBA MEANS BROADER CAREER OPPORTUNITIES
Amid ambiguous immigration policies under the Trump administration, many Indian students hope to earn an MBA from the U.S. due to the advantage it would give them in an increasingly global economy. For a lot of them, that could mean career advancement, broader opportunities, or learning the best practices and skills to bring back home. But beyond the business degree, many students find the American education to be both fulfilling and meaningful.
Despite concerns, Trump’s “merit-based” immigration system may actually benefit international MBA students in the end. But due to the ambiguity, Indian MBA students have expressed concerns on how potential employers will view them and applications to many U.S. schools from India and other foreign nations have fallen.
“It would be interesting to see if that mentality has changed, but we wanted to be as reassuring as possible,” says Idalene Kesner, dean of the Kelley School of Business. “I think there are other nations working hard that wouldn’t mind taking the place of the U.S. opening their doors to international students. In particular Australian and Canadian schools are receiving the bounty from students who are a little worried about U.S. right now.”
INTERNATIONAL APPLICANTS DOWN AT A WIDE RANGE OF BUSINESS SCHOOLS
Drastic changes in enrollment are not yet evident, though international candidates in the 2016-2017 applicant pool have fallen at a wide range of business schools, ranging from such highly selective privates as Duke and Vanderbilt to prestige publics as the University of Virginia and Ohio State University. In some cases, the declines have been steep: At Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, international candidates in this past year’s applicant pool fell to 49% from 62% a year earlier. At Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Business, internationals were down to 32% from 38%.
Even so, Indian students represent a huge proportion of international students at business schools in the U.S. From 2012 to 2013, more than 25,000 students from India took the GMAT, which is the third country after the U.S. and China with the greatest number of GMAT test takers, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council. At the Kelley School of Business, Indian students make up 69% of all international students, a 20% increase from the previous year.
Similar to Basantani, Shreya Bajaj, 25, was also born in India, attended a public school in New Delhi before going to Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University for her undergraduate degree in engineering. She was interested in finding the balance between tech and business; Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management offered a program for that specific niche – as well as a scholarship for her. Bajaj is now a second-year student at Johnson School and had recently wrapped up an internship at Cisco this summer in San Jose, CA. Her goal is to work in a business role at a U.S. tech company.
CULTURAL HURDLES CAN AT FIRST SEEM DAUNTING
What’s it like for someone from India to come to graduate school in the U.S.? Generally, students say academic communities are quite welcoming, in part, because they tend to be quite diverse and more often than not embrace that diversity. While there may be some communication issues due to not being native speakers, overall, Indian students tend to adjust well. That may be due in part to the environment of B-school, which would emphasize group projects and work. “Collaboration is key. The more you collaborate the more friends you make, it definitely helps you inside the classroom and outside the classroom,” adds Basantani.
For many, cultural hurdles can be a little daunting. Bajaj recalls how the first team she was assigned to was made up of three American men who were hugely into sports. She was nervous at first because she wasn’t sure if she would be able to relate, but she learned to quickly overcome her fears by embracing the cultural differences. Bajaj was able to find common ground with the MEN – and also learned a lot about March Madness along the way. She gained friendships out of it and also found it beneficial in other ways.
“I think if you embrace the differences, it helps you not only to assimilate to the culture, but even when you are going out for an interview and other career stuff, you understand more and have more to relate on,” she says.