The Boy Who Dreamed Out of His League- Kauutam Uthaya Suriyan (UC Berkeley ’20)

Your dream of studying in the U.S. shouldn’t just remain a dream, as Kauutam Uthaya Suriyan (University of California, Berkeley ’20) has proven to himself. Against all odds, Kauutam showed that with hard work, one can reach for what is deemed impossible. Everybody has a different college application journey- come to USAPPS 2017 to learn about the different journeys our facilitators have braved through to get where they are today! You can register here: http://bit.ly/USAPPS2017

The Boy Who Dreamed Out of His League

After a 20 hour back-breaking flight, I finally reached the place I have heard so much about in the Hollywood movies I have watched throughout my life. “The United States of America,” they call it. For many others, it’s the “Theatre of Dreams”. I walked out of the plane with my head held high and a voice in it saying, ”Champ you made it!!!”. Soon, the same smile and confidence were humbled by the customs officer and a stern look on her face. She gave my passport a good stare and sent me to the immigration office. A gruelling one hour wait in the Immigration office gave me the chills and lead me to start asking questions: Will I ever belong here? Will I ever be able to call this place home? After secondary checks by the immigration officers, I was cleared to leave the airport and be on my way to my dream college: University of  California, Berkeley.

I wasn’t just walking to my college dorm, but down memory lane as I reminisced the struggles I had to brave in order to get here. Since I was 7, I would cut newspaper articles of university rankings and paste it on my bedroom wall, dreaming of reaching the impossible. My love for UC Berkeley begun after I watched Vaaranam Aayiram, a Tamil movie where the protagonist falls head over heels for a girl in a train. He would go all the way to the girl’s college- UC Berkeley- to woo her over. Watching the beautiful scenes taken on campus, I remember telling myself that that was where I wanted to go.

However, I was told that I was dreaming for something out of my league, especially as the son of a taxi driver who struggled to make ends meet. Years of hard work, sleepless nights, and the beautiful support of my family and friends later, I received a scholarship to study in UC Berkeley. 8 years later, on UC Berkeley grounds I stood: I am a Golden Bear at last.

In a stadium full of Golden Bears!

 

I dragged all my suitcases to the campus dorms. Though my confidence returned, it was constantly attacked by the voices in my head reminding me, “you are an immigrant. You are to be extra cautious with each and every step of your way.” I got my keys and was greeted by one of the warmest smile I have ever seen in my life. I never would have suspected that the beholder of the smile would later turn out to be a very special friend to me. A Vietnamese refugee, Hung Hyunh moved to the states for a cardiac surgery. 8 months forward into his new life which America had leased him, Hung was elected by the students to be a senator and represent them.

Hung was only one of the unique and inspiring individuals I was going to meet in my forthcoming year at Berkeley. As I began to meet more people, I realized that not only was I surrounded by a community of diverse backgrounds but also one that had the identical hope and dreams that I had. That dream was to strive and be the best versions of ourselves.

The people here want to make this world a better place for all the inhabitants. They had endless ideas for a start up and public policies. I met two people in a party who agreed the walks to cafeterias for late night meals were troublesome, which lead to a startup idea three months later for late night food delivery. Every conversation I had the privilege to participate in enlightened my mind; they served as a gateway to a new world for me to understand the varying personalities and societies that make up this world. I started to become more accepting of those who were different from me. I stopped taking others as weird, but as special and individualized.

 

I attended social gatherings and frat parties, literally bumped into so many people and started to realise how important networking is because you can’t take for granted what you might learn from the next person you are about to meet.

During the first couple of weeks alone, I was already being exposed to various opportunities the American education had to offer. From consulting clubs to dance clubs, you can learn anything and be anyone you want to be. All you have to do is step up, approach people and show your commitment. The quote, “Opportunities are up for grabs” is what the American college strives on. The system equips you with everything they deem necessary for your development and maturing; all you have to do is be brave enough to leverage it.

The Kaautam who boards the plane back home to Malaysia for summer break is a different man. This Kaautam is one who is braver, more curious and a higher fervor to learn. Though broken by failures, he is stronger than before and not to forget, just a little bit “cooler” than the Kaautam, 9 months back. Obstacles were no longer just obstacles, but a platform for self-improvement. Foreign ideas and concepts did not remain foreign, but as an opportunity to learn something new.

America may not be everything I imagined it to be. It is beyond the Friday night parties, the beautiful Californian beaches, the freedom to do anything and the Hollywood glamour you see on the TV screen. This is a place for second chances, for as much failures it takes to find your true passion, for the liberty to transform into anything and anyone you want to be. This is America. The land of the free, home of the brave.

With my fellow Malaysians in UC Berkeley!

Why The U.S.- Kaviarasan Selvam (Boston University ’18)

So why did Kavi chose to study in the states and not anywhere else? So he can merge both of his interests in Astrophysics and Computer Science! Oh, did we mention cool opportunities like a semester abroad in Switzerland for an internship with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to work on an Artificial Intelligence in Particle Physics project? What’s even cooler is that these opportunities can be yours, too!

 

Why The U.S.?

That’s a question I’ve been asked multiple times over the years. Every single time, I ponder about that time in my life when I had to make a crucial decision on charting my next path in life. I had many options, but America stood out for no apparent reason. At that point in life, I could not come up with a reason as to why America seemed like a very appealing option, but it just was. With a skip of a heartbeat, I trusted my intuition and chose to go to the United States for college.

Now, 3 years on, I consider that decision to be one of the best I’ve made in my life. Why?

Over the last 3 years, I have grown so much as a person. I would attribute that personal growth to the flexibility of the American college education system. The fact that this system allows you to take control and plan your college life helps you think about your interests and goals in life. The system allows you to develop your passion and add some elements to it and then connect all the dots together. For example, I started off my college career wanting to be an Astrophysics major. Some time along freshmen year, I stumbled upon Computer Science and really liked it. And guess what? The American college system told me that I could extensively study both fields and graduate with a double major at the same time.

The options that this system provides you is limitless. I learned to speak a new language. I learned about archeology around the world. I had an amazing professor who taught me about medieval European history. I will be learning how to swim next semester. And the list goes on.

Wow, it seems like I have a considerable amount of free time to do all these things that are not related to my major. And all those things that I mentioned are actual classes and not “extra-curricular activities”. So do I have more free time? How?

Yes, and this “free time” is absolutely why you should choose to go to college in the US. An undergraduate degree in the US typically takes 4 years to complete. The system is designed to give students the flexibility of planning their college lives, meaning you choose what you want to do besides school work and you choose when you want to have fun. I chose to use this extra time to try my hands out at some astronomy research. During my sophomore year, I studied meteor showers and their various effects in the lower atmosphere. The reason I was able to get this research job was my background as an Astrophysics and Computer Science double major, which was only made possible by the college education system!

 

My 1st day working at Boston University’s Department of Astronomy!

This American college education system that allowed me to learn French and do multiple degrees at the same time gave me the opportunity to use these skills through a study abroad program. Study abroad programs are programs for students to typically spend a semester in another university, which could also be in another country.  This past semester, I studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. I took Physics classes in French at the University of Geneva. I also did an internship at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where I worked on an Artificial Intelligence in Particle Physics project. All of this was made possible because I had the opportunity to learn multiple skills throughout my college life.

With my mates at the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a general-purpose detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)!

I’ve had to work hard to be given such opportunities, but the American college education system gave me an avenue to invest my effort. This system provided the framework that allowed me to grow as a person, learn new skills and expand my boundaries. I might not have known why the US before I chose to go there for college, but now I can tell you why you should choose to go to the US for college. Come talk to me and other amazing facilitators about our American college experience at the USAPPS workshops!

Hiking the Swiss Alps!

Dear Past Self – Lina Sim (Brown University ’20)

Say hello to another one of our core committee member- Lina Sim! A rising sophomore at Brown University, Lina hopes to declare a double major in Computer Science and Economics. As freshman year comes to a close, there is much for Lina to reflect upon- from considering factors beside prestige when choosing schools to taking the time to be grateful, regardless of the situation. As she tells her past self about the Great Places she will go, she hopes that you believe that you will, too!

Dear past-self,

I see the time has come for you to apply to college! Time really flies, doesn’t it? I can’t believe it’s already been a year, the days of applying to college are still very fresh in my mind. But before you step in, here are some things I wish I knew before I started this whole process:

1.Take it easy! Yes, applying to colleges can be a stressful and harrowing experience. The American university application process, in particular, may seem rather convoluted at times. Terms like holistic admissions, standardized testing, personal essays, recommendation letters and financial aid will start to occupy every breathing moment. Sometimes, it may even feel like the everything you’ve done in the first 18 years of your life hangs on getting into college. It does NOT! In the grand scheme of things, college is but one of the many different milestones in your life. Hang in there, wherever in the world you’ll end up for the next four years, it will be okay. I promise!!

 
2. The numbers and stats are not the end-all. At times, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, the rankings, the acceptance rates, and the prestige. Applying to colleges isn’t a game of Pokemon GO where you try to “catch” them all (after all, you only get to attend ONE college). While the rankings do reveal the quality of an institution and its students to a certain extent, do keep in mind that there exists a myriad of high quality colleges that may not necessarily come with a prestigious name tag that can still give you a world-class educational experience. Furthermore, we all have different learning styles and preferences. Some people prefer large lectures over small seminars, while others thrive in a smaller setting. Throughout this process, don’t forget to evaluate your own learning preferences and think about the type of educational environment you’d like to spend your next four years in. It’s a lot more important than you think it is!

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

3. Don’t forget to say thank you! It’s college decisions day! Congratulations on the acceptance letter! Now before you run off to write that celebratory Facebook post, don’t forget to thank all the people who made this possible in the first place. Oftentimes, it takes a whole village to put a successful college application together. Applying to and attending a university in the US is an incredible privilege, one that you would’ve not been able to afford if not for the support of your parents, teachers and mentors. So on this especially exciting day, remember to thank all those who have made this dream possible in the first place.

Standing in front of the Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve with friends from all over the world!
Times Square!

4. OH, the places you’ll go! Your first year in the United States will take you on a pretty wild ride. You’ll be baffled at people greeting each other with a “How are you?”, wonder why the nickel (5 cents) is physically larger than a dime (10 cents) and struggle to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit and kilometers into miles. You’ll find that coding isn’t that scary after all, and that History (contrary to popular belief) can be incredibly interesting. You’ll realize that you didn’t take a single Chemistry class your entire first year, despite declaring that as your prospective major. You will travel across the entire country from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast by public transport with your best friend over winter break, because why not? You’ll visit cities you’ve only read in novels and watched on TV for the past eighteen years of your life, spend New Years on a train across the Midwest (not knowing when exactly to celebrate because you’re crossing over time zones) and meet people from all over the world. Oh, the wonders and thrills that lie ahead!

5. Things will get tough. Going to university with very incredibly smart and talented human beings can be very intellectually stimulating, but sometimes, it can make you feel rather incompetent. The sheer amount of talent that surrounds you day and night will make you question if the admission office made a huge mistake of letting you in. You’ll feel like you’re nothing compared to your peers and that you’ll never ever be up to par with everyone else. Nonetheless, as cliché as this sounds, you’ll soon begin to notice that you are not alone, and that there will always be great people who are ready to support you all the way.

 

Snow!

 

6. Don’t take the small things for granted.  Try to take pleasure in the little things, and you’ll start to notice that they often make the biggest difference. The hustle and bustle of college life can often be overwhelming, to the extent of being claustrophobic at times. So try to appreciate the little things, and be amazed at how far it can take you. Try taking a different path to class and notice the cracks in the sidewalk, or sit outside when it’s warm and watch the people go by. Watch the leaves change color in the fall, listen to the birds chirping outside your window as you wake up, take a walk outside on the night of the first snowfall, and take in the smell of the earth after the first spring rain. Take a walk downtown (yes, a world exists beyond the campus gates). Talk to the dining hall ladies, you’ll never know how much you actually have in common (do this, seriously)! While these little things seem rather trivial and insignificant, you’d be surprised to find how magical these tiny moments can be. Try it! Just for a moment, leave your books, step outside, enjoy the sun/snow and simply appreciate you being here. 🙂

 

I’m incredibly excited for you as you begin this new chapter in life. It will be a journey that you will never forget. So congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! Now that you know what you need to know, I’d like to leave you with this, before you go. 🙂

Best regards,

Lina of 2017

Dear Past Self- Sonja English (Wesleyan University ’20)

Time, as Sonja has realised in retrospect, is truly a powerful thing; it is capable of teaching you, proving you wrong and making you take note of the things you have not realised before. In an honest letter to herself, Sonja recounts the beginning of her freshman year and reminds herself of life in the U.S.’ sweet, sweet surprises (which are often not in ways she imagined them to be.)

Dear Past Self,

At this point in time, you’re probably sitting in your single-room dorm thinking of who to share the next meal with. You don’t really know anyone very well, and frankly you don’t feel like you want to know them. They seem so different, unrelatable, even obnoxious. It seems like very few of them have something in common with you. Come mid-semester—a few months into college—you will find close friends. Not just friends of convenience, but people that you actually share a sense of humour and perspective with. Unbeknownst to you, you will befriend *white* people that are curious about where you come from and are adventurous to try the food that you cook. (You can cook!) By second semester, the cafeteria room will not be so daunting. Tables around you will have familiar faces, and there will be a group that you’ll actually want to sit with—as opposed to just sitting with them because you feel like you should. In time, you’ll also be comfortable with yourself. Comfortable enough to confidently sit by yourself—if you want to. Right now, I’m comfortable with where I am. My friends come from Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Chicago, Maryland, California, the Philippines, and more. If I want to watch Rupaul’s Drag Race in my room alone on Friday night I can, but just as well, I know that I can join my friends for beer & bad music that night, too.

My god, you will spend an immense amount of time in your room. So keep it neat and welcoming! Soft bed sheets are going to be the best investment you’ve made. Buying textbooks are going to be the worst (hint: download them, or find them in the library).

You’re going to discover that you’re not going to be a physicist, computer scientist, or economist. These academic challenges aren’t going to stop you from getting accepted by five job positions. You needed to know that these aren’t strong suits to discover your strengths. It will always come back to literature, writing, reading. Don’t forget your passions. These passions will propel you into a few jobs that will enable you to travel! The most wonderful surprise is knowing that you’ve saved up enough money to go to Cuba.

Breakfast with friends in Cuba

Things will fall into place: routine, friends, fitness, food. And the best past is, that you can boast of having read twelve Russian novels!

Take care,

Sonja