Indian Exchange Students Excel in U.S. Schools

By Elizabeth Kelleher
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Georgia, a Southern U.S. state, has announced its new teenage speech champion.  A student from Grady High School in Atlanta outdid secondary-school competitors from all over the state.  Only she is actually from the westernmost state of India.

Arundhati Sridhar is an exchange student from Gujarat, India, who came to Georgia to experience American life and teach Americans about her country.  She seems to have taken it a little far.  Her speechifying has carried her from Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, New Mexico and Kansas, where she competed in the “nationals” competition of the National Forensic League.

Sridhar is one of 32 students from India to attend U.S. secondary schools during the 2006-2007 academic year through the Youth Exchange and Study Program, a competitive scholarship funded by the U.S. State Department.  This was the second year students from India participated in the program, which brings teens from countries with significant Muslim populations to the United States to promote mutual understanding and develop leadership skills.

The Indians enjoyed dispelling stereotypes of their country.  They said many Americans incorrectly believe that India consists only of rural villages, where camels, elephants and cows walk the streets unattended, that everybody in India is Hindu and that all Indian food is spicy.

The students confessed that, while they set Americans straight on these misconceptions about India, they had arrived with a few of their own about the United States.  George Thomas, also of Gujarat, said that he had watched too much TV - particularly Friends and Seinfeld, set in New York, and Full House, set in San Francisco.  He was shocked to find that, in contrast to his television-fueled ideas of big-city life in America, the United States has plenty of small towns, like Paso Robles, California, with 27,000 residents, where he spent the year.

Nikhita Nath, of Gujarat, said she found U.S. students to be more serious than she had imagined - they read many books and work hard to get into good colleges.  Sridhar noticed that Americans express affection for each other in words more freely than Indians would.

The Indian students named other aspects of U.S. life that struck them: mail carriers are very polite, cars are more deferential to pedestrians than in India and the air is cleaner and easier to breathe.  They experienced snow for the first time and called it wonderful.  Nath - who spent the year in Rye, New York, which can have harsh winters - called spring even more wonderful.

On the negative side, the students were surprised to see that, during lunchtime in their American schools, some students separated into groups that seemed to be based on race.  Sridhar said she was disappointed - because she respects the American belief that holds everyone to be equal - to hear an impolite comment about black students during one debate-team trip.


The Indian students, while taking rigorous courses in the United States - including advanced placement literature, environmental science and trigonometry - also seized the opportunity to expand their personal interests.  Taking advantage of the diverse curricula of American schools, Thomas studied drama and played roles in three plays.  Nath, who plans to focus on science in her later studies, enjoyed a photography class.  And Sridhar, because she was at a communications “magnet school,” took advanced courses in speech and in video production.

Sridhar was intimidated at first by the oratorical skills of her peers in speech class but drew on her own background to write the blue-ribbon speech that she honed through several competitions.  Called “The Little Notes in Life,” her speech refers to notes inscribed at the front of textbooks in India, one of which is a memorable quote by Mahatma Gandhi.

The students, who spoke to USINFO June 29, just before heading to the airport to return to India, gushed about extracurricular activities they enjoyed - snowboarding, whale watching, visiting the Martin Luther King center, dissecting a whale with a marine biologist and volunteering at a nature center to study invasive plants.

“Life here is full of opportunities,” said Nath.  “You can do anything.  I have tried to look for every opportunity I can.”  She thinks many American teens take for granted how many interests they can pursue during secondary school.

Speaking to the students on the eve of their return to India, Robert Persiko, who has coordinated youth exchanges at the State Department for many years, exhorted the students to keep their “sense of adventure and wonder.”

The Indians boarded the airplane with backpacks full of memorabilia, including scrapbook pages from American friends, an “Obama ’08” bumper sticker, addresses of host families who promise to visit India, standardized test scores that might help them later to enter U.S. universities, speech trophies and, in Nath’s case, 5,000 electronic photos.

Thomas did not take photos.  “It’s all here,” he said, “in my head and in my heart.”

More information about the Youth Exchange and Study Program is available on its Web site.