Appreciating the Intangible as an International Student

Sid Thatham, having been in the US since 2012, reflects on his experiences and shares advice for current international students.

A lot of the international students go to the US to study with strict expectations and social rules that determine a typical path of success and a check-list of achievements that they are expected to satisfy. A 4.0 GPA, a job that pays in six figures, a fancy car, an H1B right after, and so on. Acquiring this laundry list of accomplishments determines if you’re successful in your society’s eyes or not. While we always recognize people for hitting these milestones, there’s no public acknowledgement for your perseverance through tough times, for those sleepless nights to overcome the odds, and so on – these are equally important and satisfying achievements, albeit intangible.

I started studying in the US in 2012. In retrospect, I can list off the recognitions and honors I have received over the last five years but my real achievements are the ones for which there was no public praise. While I am proud of whatever I’ve been able to accomplish, I know that sooner or later, all the validation and the attention that came along with it will fade away and what will remain are the memories, the experiences and the personal growth and understanding that came along with it. Here are two of them.

Growing up, as a kid in New Delhi, India, I had a healthy competition with my classmates for a chance to speak in the school assembly. We brought the best out of each other, at least as far as public speaking was concerned. In 2003, after my 7th grade, I moved to a new school in a new city. For the next two years, I had to deal with “Do you even listen to yourself? Your voice is way too manly for someone our age!” You get the gist, right? My self-confidence took a huge blow and going on to the stage scared me. Public speaking terrified me. Stage fright had taken over.

Fast forward to 2016, I got invited to do a TED talk. How that happened is a story for a different day, but all those opinions about how I sounded would come back to haunt me. It felt like those voices in the 8th grade had drowned mine. I had heard of TED talks and watched a couple of them as a college student in India. When I decided to study in the US, I had a dream to attend a live TEDx event and nothing else. To be invited to speak at one, I never thought that would happen. I went on to do it anyway. Standing under blinding spotlights knowing that I was in front of 800 people watching me, that feeling of having finished that talk…I’ve never felt a rush like that before. It wasn’t just about a TED talk, it was more than that. I had something to prove to myself. It almost felt like I had gotten my voice back. It felt like I had silenced those 8th grade bullies. It still gets me, but I feel so much better about myself now, just that I’m sad I wasted all those years living in fear of what people would say, that I squandered away all those opportunities that came along.

If you’re a student, especially in grad school, chances are that you drink a lot of coffee to do your thing; assignments, literature review, research, etc. I did too, brewed my own coffee. I used to live off of coffee, peanut-butter and apples. Sleep and cooked food were luxuries I couldn’t afford because time of was the essence. I certainly couldn’t afford to buy the amount of coffee I consumed in a day. In a conversation about caffeine, a rich friend said “How do you even drink regular coffee? I only drink Starbucks! I can afford it!” Almost felt like a slap in the face. In 2015, I got to learn about Howard Schultz, the then-CEO of Starbucks, via YouTube. I was very impressed by how he spoke and did a full-blown research on his life. I remember reading his book in class, with tears in my eyes because I could relate to his childhood and his up-brining a whole lot. He’s been a personal hero since then. In 2017, a different friend of mine organized a leadership conference at my university. Since I had done some leadership work over the years, he put me on the organizing committee. One fine day, he told me that Howard Schultz was going to speak at the conference. I couldn’t believe it.

Fast forward a few months, I had the opportunity to meet Howard, go on a ‘tour’ of a Starbucks store close-by and while my rich friend stood in line to get a cup of coffee, Howard Schultz asked me if I wanted one. Best coffee I’ve ever had! Haha

 I wasn’t able to process what had just happened until after a few hours. It felt like all those years of hard work on extracurricular work on campus, outside the class, outside my lab had paid off. It felt like I had this new found hope, a new motivation that I didn’t have before. A drive, like never before; that if Howard Schultz can be successful from humble beginnings, maybe I can do something with my life too? Not to compare myself with him, but I was able to hope to see some light at the end of tunnel. And you can never really put a price on that.

Having lived in the US for five years now, I can go on and on about experiences and memories that mean a lot. We live in a world which rewards external/tangible accomplishments but I encourage you to take a step back from all that and ask yourself what is your definition for a true ‘achievement’. Your universities and life in the US will give you chances to realize what an achievement means to you. They don’t call it the ‘Land of the opportunity’ for nothing. Some of you have already accomplished a lot; take some time to revisit those internal triumphs, those hard-fought battles. Acknowledge them, value them. While money, power and position are important, appreciate what doesn’t involve any of that. I’m sure life would seem more fulfilling.

Sid Thatham graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017 with a Master’s in Chemical Engineering and an MBA. Since graduation, he’s been teaching at the university as Associate Professor – Adjunct and is a Public Affairs officer for Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

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