The art of not losing hope till the last moment. I will explain why I wrote this at the very beginning. Come back after reading this entire piece.
Hi, I am Bhavya Garg, here to share my nail biting journey to the US during my internship at Purdue University during the summer of 2019. As it’s almost been a year since I boarded that flight, this is the perfect opportunity for me to reflect back on my journey and share my experience with you all.
Purdue University comes through the PT cell every year and selects 2-3 students from various departments each based on SOP, resume and department ranks. For our batch it came in November, right before the end-sems. My dream of pursuing an academic career in Chemistry was at crossroads due to a highly demotivating organic course in the 5th semester. That very semester, I was having serious doubts about continuing in the field of chemistry and even had second thoughts while applying for internships. I had heard A LOT about Purdue from seniors and had been targeting it for a year. But here I was, still thinking whether to fill the application that I had been waiting for since so long. After pulling myself together I decided I wouldn’t let a course ruin my lifelong dream and so gave it a go.
In December, we got the results and voila! I was selected. We then started preparing for summers, booked to and fro flights and found accommodation through Facebook groups. West Lafayette offers independent apartments that we can sublease from students already studying there who would in turn go for their summer break to someplace else. (Purdue has few dorms but not at all affordable for students on limited stipends).
Just give me my Visa already!
The US visa process is supposed to be ridiculous in general but in my case it was a total nightmare. There are two rounds, biometric registration and the interview, and you have to book two separate appointments for both. So as soon as my official documents arrived from the US (much later than everyone else, which had already started making me nervous), I booked a visa appointment right away.
If you have ever talked to me in the past two years you may have probably heard me rant about how I lost my internship in Germany after my second year due to similar issues. So this panicking was more about- “why me again? I can’t go through all that emotional turmoil again”.
I still had exactly one month’s time which was supposed to be sufficient to get visa approved in time as the process takes 7-10 days and my fellow mates were getting theirs within a week. But as fate would have it, my visa got held under ‘administrative processing’ which would take at least 28 days to 4 months for clearing. I felt lost and defeated. But I went through all the formalities required during the process hoping for the best. Meanwhile, after talking to friends and seniors, I came in contact with several people who had gone/were going through the same thing. As I inquired and read more about the situation, I got to know in most cases this processing got cleared in no less than 2 months. These people had to compromise their internships and everything.
I could see another Germany incident happening right in front of my eyes. Why was such a painful history repeating itself? Was one blow not enough? On one hand, I gradually started accepting the reality and started applying for other opportunities, on the other hand I was determined I had to make it work this time no matter what. But the thing was- there was really nothing I could do that would improve the situation. After an employee at the visa center advised me, I started calling the embassy’s customer care number 5 times a day asking for updates on my case. Of course it wouldn’t change anything but that was the least I could do. After multiple requests on several platforms, be it emails, calls, messages or letters when the situation didn’t improve, I informed our point of contact people in Purdue of the same and they were most reassuring. They calmed me down saying this happens every year with a couple of applicants and they would be adjusting to all the compromises needed to be made if my visa gets delayed. It was time to vacate the hostel room, so I came home. Next day, I received an email saying my processing was complete and the visa will be issued soon. Urgent documents had to be submitted at the center, so I came back to Mumbai again via the next flight the very same day. Submitted all the documents and finally saw a ray of hope. 7 days passed. No updates. I got worried again. After relentless begging for updates every half an hour for a couple of days, finally on the morning of May 9th, my visa was in my hand, literally few hours before I had to board the flight in the evening.
This episode alone, even before the beginning of the internship gave me a glimpse of what next two months were going to be like — full of challenges and ready to test your patience as well as fighter spirit on every turn.
Alright, here’s your visa. Thanks, but where’s my luggage?
So we (group of 7) were all settled in the plane, bidding goodbye to India as we took off. I was still numb from my visa experience so didn’t really feel anything while my friends were describing their mixed feelings about leaving India. Slowly with 24 hours of flying across the globe, I started to forget about the past and began enjoying it. Fast forward, at the belt after one hour of waiting for our luggage at Chicago airport, my biggest suitcase didn’t arrive. After enquiring at the counter, we realized my suitcase was mistakenly taken by some other passenger and I was told to go home, further information would be provided via emails. There it was. Another blow.
We reached the campus close to midnight, and got off the shuttle one by one to the nearest stops from our designated apartments. My roommate and I couldn’t find our apartment from the stop even though the map showed it right there. After meandering around the neighborhood, we finally rang the doorbell of a house where the light was still on. A girl came out and helped us trace our apartment which was situated at such a blind spot, we couldn’t have found it on our own. We finally went inside, the girl who used to live there before us had been waiting for us to arrive. She was supposed to leave for her own internship next morning. This total stranger, listened patiently to our one hell of a story, calmed us down and made us food. She gave us a quick tour of the apartment and other guidelines before we all crashed for the night. Next morning, before the two of us jetlagged humans could get up, she had already left. Now we were on our own, on a Saturday morning looking for ways to spend the weekend before the scheduled orientation on Monday.
On Saturday, we explored the neighborhood within walkable capacity and tracked down banks, malls, restaurants, Indian stores to name a few. On Sunday, we went to Walmart to buy groceries and other essentials.
Let’s go to Walmart? Sure! Now let’s get back home. Sure, but HOW ??
One thing seniors had repeatedly told us was that cab rides are very expensive. Buses in and around the campus are free for Purdue students so make full use of them. Forget that cabs exist. And here we were, stuck at Walmart on the second day of our arrival with no buses running, sitting like morons waiting for some magic to happen. (It was a Sunday and we had taken a bus in the morning to Walmart but what we didn’t know was that buses don’t run in the evening on Sundays!) After an unusually long discussion, we were finally convinced it’s time to book a cab. The next challenge was HOW? None of our Indian debit/travel cards or GPay or anything worked, and we didn’t have an American card/account yet. Cash payment option was not available. Didn’t have internet connectivity either (Why? Don’t ask). So we were using Walmart wifi and therefore couldn’t even step out of it. At last we thought it was time to walk back home with stuff we could in no way carry even for 5 minutes (there were 2 litre milk cans for God’s sake). So, we took screenshots of the Google maps directions as the internet wouldn’t be available once we stepped outside Walmart and it was an estimated 1 hour walk back home. Left with no alternatives, and a 1 hour walk ahead of us, we began. Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, heavy rains came pouring down. Both hands full of the stuff we bought, and no one to carry an umbrella for us princesses, heartbroken, we walked back inside and just sat. It was time to beg for a lift. It was getting dark, we had to decide something and decide fast. Thinking of giving it one last try, I tried booking a cab and this time my card worked. The cab arrived within 5 minutes and we were home in 15 minutes. After reaching home, I asked the driver to confirm if he had received the online payment and he said he did. We bid him goodbye so heartily as if an angel had come to our rescue! (Till now my uber account doesn’t work showing that payment as pending even after paying twice and multiple complaints but that’s a different issue). I am just glad we got that cab ride home even if it was my last uber ride using that account.
Bad days are over, I promise.
My family had convinced me by now to forget about the luggage I had lost and to just purchase the important things that went with it. Orientation was done, followed by high tea. I got to meet my professor there itself. Such a grand personality yet such a humble man! Next morning, I went to his lab with another student from our institute who was going to work under the same professor, and we were greeted by the lab manager who was an Indian. He was so happy to see two fellow vegetarian Indians that he instantly took us to lunch in his car to a popular Indian restaurant. Later, we discussed the details of our assigned projects and just like that, my internship finally began.
Nerdy work stuff ahead!
The first week of internship consisted of safety training which was very important not only because I was working in a chemistry lab full of chemicals but also because I had to work on cancer and deal with living cancer cells. I was assigned a postdoctoral mentor who was also an Indian. Soon, work began in full spirit. My project was quite demanding, so I would have to work all day long from 9 in the morning to 8 in the evening. The city of West Lafayette and Lafayette is a little infamous for burglaries, robberies, kidnappings and other petty crimes so my mentor would walk me home whenever we had to work late.
By the way, in a few days, my lost luggage was tracked down and was dropped at my apartment door.
Working was fun. The project was even more interesting than the amazingly charming scenic beauty of the US. Nevertheless, I had brought two phones with me, one for the sole purpose of capturing good photos. So, I would click everything- admirable buildings, my professor’s astonishing lab, my work desk, beautiful walking/running/cycling trails, even the breadth of Walmart.
Work got more and more intense and I could hardly find time to even cook food. Most of the days in the later half of the summer, I would skip meals or eat at restaurants. My mentor often noticed I didn’t bring lunch and would advise me to take care of my routine. One day, he amusingly but seriously said that he wouldn’t let me work if I didn’t start bringing something to eat and even offered me his own lunch. From the next day onwards, I would pack a couple pieces of bread or make a quick sandwich and carry an apple with me. Often, I would grab some chips or coffee from the vending machine during snack breaks.
Nothing else was going well in life but my project had me so engrossed I wouldn’t worry about anything else. While talking to another friend interning in Canada, as we were discussing weekends of us introverted fellas, we motivated each other and promised to do something good and discuss what we explored on our next call. That was enough of a push. I just stood up, dressed up and went on a solo exploration as far as I could. I walked through trails, discovered a beautiful park, saw the Wabash River nearby, found a pedestrian bridge on the river meant for the sole purpose of relaxing, took a tour of the nearby railway station, had delicious pizza and mexican food. Later that evening, while I was relaxing on the same bridge, three of my friends called to hangout and the four of us went to a karaoke bar nearby and sang our lungs out. Later, we crashed at one of our apartments, played games and watched movies all night. Around 5 in the morning, I came back to my apartment. Even at that hour of the day, I clicked a photo of the most beautiful sky I have ever seen.
Another weekend, internship junta got together and we went to the Mosey Down Main Street festival in the city of Lafayette on the other side of the river. There were artists and bands playing their music, dancing and singing songs, and lots of food stalls lined up on both sides of the street among other things.
On the 4th of July (American Independence day), we witnessed Diwali-like fireworks from the same bridge on the river. First time in two months we had seen such a huge crowd in the city. People had come with their blankets and adorable pets and overnight bags full of snacks, and spent the entire night on the bridge. One dog, taller than me pounced on me while his owner stood aside and laughed. I had a little stroke in the moment and my roommate calmed me down while we judged that owner the rest of the time. Later that day, we went to Target, a megastore, and fulfilled our much awaited shopping list of items we had to buy from the country. We ordered a couple of items from Amazon which were not available in the megastore. It was a feeling of completeness to have done more or less everything we intended to do so far.
Approaching towards the end
Summers were about to end and so was our internship. We had a final presentation on our last working day where all 34 of us had to present our two month long work in 90 seconds. My lab manager had come to see our presentation too and at the end of the event he told me after a meeting with my mentor and professor that they were offering me an opportunity to pursue PhD in their lab. My happiness knew no bounds!
It was the last get-together of us all and was time to leave the country.
We had kept a couple of days for tourism before we left the US. So, we went to Chicago and accommodated ourselves into a friend’s apartment there for a night. All five of us staying in another student’s apartment who himself was on an internship in Chicago was challenging and hilarious. Next day, we explored the beauty that was Chicago.
We tried the famous deep dish pizza (which i personally didn’t like :P), walked through the millennium park, along the banks of Lake Michigan (unparalleled beauty), witnessed the breath-taking skyline from 103rd floor of the Willis tower, bought sovereigns and chocolates for friends back in India and finally headed to Chicago airport.
Interestingly, the amount of time and the tedious process you go through while trying to enter the US is in sharp contrast to the mere few minutes of formalities they take to send you back flying to your own country. XD.
With all the challenges and life lessons throughout the journey, it was so unique and interesting, in the end nothing bothered me. No grudges against the misfortunes experienced earlier, I’m just glad that this trip happened.
A lot is still to be seen and discovered in the US, so maybe next time.
One important lesson that I keep close to my heart is- when the situation got as worse as it could, people came through. And you honestly have no idea of your own capabilities. You can take much more than you think you can. Just step out of your comfort zone to find your true potential.
People at Purdue, especially my mentor, my lab manager, my Professor and other lab mates were exceptionally sweet and kind to me. An entire separate post could be written dedicated to these people (and the variety of food I explored. :P) It was once in a lifetime experience and I feel so fortunate to have experienced it.