Uncertainty and Personal Discovery in a Foreign World

College freshman Madhumitha Baby Kumar doesn’t know who she is.

College is often considered a limbo between childhood and the real world in which students try to find themselves. This desire for self-discovery is sometimes heightened for international students like Kumar as they adapt to the foreign culture and education system while experiencing newfound freedom and independence. Kumar is eager to face these new challenges because she believes overcoming them will lead to great self-discovery.

Kumar lived in Mysore, India, since birth. As a child, she and her friends watched giant Dasara elephants decorated with gold and brightly colored quilts march through her city. At night, Kumar would admire the city’s beautiful multi-colored lights and the Palace of Mysore shining as if it were made of gold. Whenever she got hungry, Kumar would be able to easily visit any one of the many food stalls set up throughout the city. Food was literally everywhere; during the Dasara festival, all the different cuisines in the state are brought into Mysore.

“The only word to describe the smell is ‘magical,’ ” Kumar said, laughing.. “Especially since right now, I miss all of the food.”

Now, Kumar is a student at Emory University, several thousand miles away from her home in India. She never planned on attending college in America, but later realized the Indian education system couldn’t offer her the same intellectual exploration as its American counterpart, she said. She applied to Emory and New York University (N.Y.U.) and was accepted to both.

“At first I only considered Emory, but I really, really wanted to go to N.Y.U.,” Kumar said. “I had all the N.Y.U. swag. But then one day before the decision deadline, I watched a movie [that] my best friend recommended [to] me.”

That movie was Into The Wild (2007), which tells the story of Emory alumnus Christopher McCandless, who abandoned everything to live in the wilderness of Alaska. Kumar took this movie as a sign. She wanted to be at a university in which people have the same yearning for self-discovery that she does, and McCandless’ story convinced her Emory was that place.

Now, she’s in a whole new place, surrounded by people who grew up around cultures different from hers. Everyday, she faces a new challenge. For example, Americans’ interactions with each other are a foreign concept to Kumar.

“Here [in America] people are more nice outwardly. For example, back home we don’t say ‘thank you’ to people who serve us, because service is expected,” Kumar explained. “People in India are nice, too, but it’s just different.”

Kumar is also adapting to the education system in America. In India, she didn’t have to do daily readings because there was only one final exam. At Emory, she’s studying constantly.

“In India, they also don’t train you to write very well in terms of papers, so I think my writing skills are much weaker than the rest [of the students at Emory],” Kumar said.

But Kumar doesn’t plan to let  inexperience with writing college papers stop her. Before she submits her final papers, she plans to seek  help from the Writing Center and from her friends who are strong writers.

Currently, Kumar plans to major in political science with a concentration in international relations and mathematics, because they are new, intriguing concepts to her, she said. In India, her parents forced her to focus on the sciences.

“In India, if you do science, you can branch out into any profession,” Kumar said. “I hated science actually. I was good at it, but I didn’t find it interesting.”

Besides more academic options, Kumar has also found increased flexibility in choosing activities and fashion while in the States.

“The clothes I’m wearing now wouldn’t be appropriate back in India,” Kumar said, as she pointed to her shorts and comfortable brown sweater. “And … last night I went to my first party ever.”

Regardless of all the new challenges that will shape her future identity, Kumar seeks to maintain her deeply held beliefs, such as her value of family. Kumar admitted that when she was back in India, she rarely opened up to her parents. But now that she’s thousands of miles away, her perspective on communicating with them has shifted.

“I’m here so far away from home, and I just don’t want to mess things up,” Kumar said. “I either want to get better and better every day or even improve slowly, but there’s no going downhill from now.”

Kumar calls her parents twice a day: once in the morning, when her parents are just finishing dinner, and once at night, when her parents wake up. Kumar is grateful for her supportive parents, and they are one of the reasons she wants to succeed in her new environment.

“I don’t want to lose touch with my parents, because my parents didn’t have to give birth to me just to see me go away,” Kumar said. “They wanted someone to be theirs that they can proudly call them their daughter, and if you lose touch with your parents, you’re not anyone’s child, just a person.”

One thing Kumar has already discovered about herself at Emory is that she is emotionally strong and wants to continue to be strong.

“I am thousands of miles away from home and still keeping it together. So when [bad] things happen I shouldn’t just break down, I should tell myself, ‘Get your ass up and do stuff,’ ’’ Kumar said. “I want to become much more confident in who I am, and accept myself no matter what.”

Kumar may not know who she is, but everyday she is adapting to the new culture, education system and freedom, discovering herself in the process. She is at Emory not only to learn who she is, but also realize who she wants to be.

“I feel like [finding out who you want to be] is much more important [than finding out who you are],” Kumar said. “You need to change yourself to be somebody that you actually want to be instead of trying to figure out who you are.”

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