When Mom Isn’t There: Helping Indian Students Adjust to American Universities
In India, it’s not uncommon for middle class households to have cooks, maids, or servants that help with household chores; a laborer can cost as little as 20 dollars a month. Even if there aren’t any servants around, many Indians continue living with their parents well into their thirties, or, for some, their entire lives.


The result is that for many of India’s middle class youth, everything is taken care of. Household chores like cooking and laundry, or administrative tasks like submitting paperwork to the government, are simply never something they’ve had to face on their own. This works great as long as the privileged student stays home.

But when they come to study in the United States, they’re paralyzed.

Kunal Shah founded Stencil Consulting to help Indian students make that transition.

“The biggest difference is in independence. India is a family-oriented country, and you might live at home with your family your entire life. But in America, you’re on your own. Many [Indian] kids never learn how to do simple things like laundry because in their household, they’re used to having everything already taken care of,” Kunal said in his upscale office in downtown Bangalore, surrounded by dozens of banners and posters from US universities.

“Life in America is just way different than in India.”

Stencil Consulting aims to smooth out that transition. Since 2009, Kunal’s Bangalore based firm has helped place hundreds of Indian students in US universities. But what separates his firm from the others is the importance Stencil Consulting places on preparing students for their new life abroad.

The majority of his clients come from the middle to upper-middle class. Many times, this means that students are not prepared for the challenges a new life in the United States will present, away from their families and hired help. The transition comes with a host of new responsibilities, such as selecting their own classes, paying their bills on time, or getting social security numbers, that they have never confronted.

“It can be a shock when they [the students] suddenly learn that they have to balance all these things at once. India is not a multi-task country. If you are a student, or have a full time job, you usually don’t worry about those things because other people do them for you.”

Kunal knows what that shift in lifestyle feels like from personal experience. He arrived in the United States in 2003, and spent six years completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees and traveling all around the country. “I made so many mistakes” Kunal laughs. “In India, almost everyone thinks of college just as a way to get a job. So it’s a surprise when they arrive [in the US] and learn it’s much more than that.”

When Kunal arrived back in Bangalore in 2009, he decided to start Stencil to share what he had learned about studying in the US. He noticed that most of Bangalore’s existing college counselors weren’t up to the task. Not only were they neglecting to prepare students for the cultural transition, but they were promoting colleges which weren’t good fits for their students. Some counselors were accepting commissions from universities in exchange for recommending them to their students.

“Aside from the top 100 or so schools, many of the 3,500 US universities struggle to attract foreign students, which they want for their demographic statistics.”

There are about 2000 US universities trying to increase student body diversity by offering commissions, and paying college counselors such as those in Bangalore handsome sums to send them international students.

“Stencil Consulting doesn’t take commissions.” Kumal says.

Instead, at a fixed price of 35,000 rupees (700 dollars), he guides his students through a 5 point program, beginning with advice on school selection.

Oftentimes this involves dispelling the preconceptions of both the parents and the student. “For instance, I’ll have parents saying their child can only study in Detroit because they have relatives there. Or a student who comes in thinking that there are only 20 or so schools in the US worth applying to. You know – like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Cal Tech. We try to show them there’s more out there.”

Kunal’s team of 12 advisors, who all studied at US universities, are the key to that process.

They help the students and parents agree upon eight schools, at which point Stencil does all the work preparing their Indian clients for their US transition – even filling out the college applications (except for the essays), sending in the test scores, doing the visa paperwork, and sometimes locking down apartments.

When asked if this doesn’t hinder the transition to Independence, Kunal said “At this stage it’s still easier for us to do everything for them, because that’s what they’re used to. But we do make a point for the students to be there when we do it. So they can see how it’s done.”

The company gears each of their students for the cultural transition step by step. But the critical moment comes in the training they receive in the last days leading up to their flight to the United States. That’s when Stencil runs its two day crash course of American culture.

“We cover as much as we can. Dealing with roommates, college parties, selecting classes. We even go into the little things, like Don’t buy your laptop at Circuit City — they’ll rip you off, or Don’t eat the free pizza at the mall – you might be opening a credit card.”

The orientation is designed to ease the shock of American culture as much as possible, before an Indian student arrives. Among the more than 120,000 Indians studying at US universities, there is a 20% annual attrition rate of students returning home early.

“That’s why we actually tell our students that for the first six months they’ll hate the United States. It turns out to be true for almost all of them — it’s so much of a transition.”

But, Kunal adds, if they can just work through those first six months, they’ll learn to love it.

It’s the best part of the job for Kunal – following up and staying current with the students he’s helped send halfway across the globe. Because even if it means fielding the occasional distressed calls from students or their empty nest parents, “I feel I’m living vicariously through their experiences. And that’s almost like I get to go to college all over again.”

This article was featured on Forbes :http://www.forbes.com/sites/morganhartley/2012/10/01/when-mom-isnt-there-in-college-hire-this-counselor-instead/2/