From serving noodles to getting academic majors: We do it all!

Yashwant Meghare serves a customer at the food court in UW Hub. Photo by Akhila Pingali.
Yashwant Meghare serves a customer at the food court in UW Hub. Photo by Akhila Pingali.

Yashwant Meghare stands at a counter in the University of Washington’s Husky Union Building (UW HUB), greeting customers, billing their lunch, and handing out change. He hops to the back to find a new bottle of sauce to replace an empty one on the counter, then moves on to wish the next customer and type away at the billing machine. He is busy. He is happy. And he is a student.

This would be quite ordinary for anyone born and brought up in the United States, but for Yashwant, it is something new. Why? Because where he comes from, students working part-time or full-time to support themselves is uncommon.

Yashwant is an Indian, here in Seattle to study Oceanography at the University.   In most South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, children’s education is provided for by the parents, even when they are not technically children any more. From the cradle, to creche, to college and beyond, all personal and academic and other needs are met by the family until their ward gets a job. Not surprising, considering that in these countries, the family is an integral part – often the most important unit – of the social system. However, once these students fly overseas, they encounter a sea change. It’s no different here in Seattle, at the University of Washington.

Yashwant says that when he first arrived here, he felt he didn’t fit in because all his friends were working while he was living off his parents’ money. “Whenever we wanted to go out, like to a restaurant, for example, some friends would say, ‘Oh I can’t come. I’m trying to save some money.’ [This] concept didn’t really apply to me initially because […] my parents gave me money to spend.” But soon, he got himself a job and became more self-dependent, finally feeling that he had blended in.

While some students their tight schedule difficult to manage, others enjoy their work.
While some students their tight schedule difficult to manage, others enjoy their work.. Photo by Akhila Pingali.

So, which practice is better? Can one really decide? Perhaps the best one can do is to analyse the pros and cons of both. According to Emma Williams, Associate Ombudsman at the University, “I think getting work experience while studying is a useful thing. Students get used to workplace ethics and conditions and sometimes they continue working at the same place after finishing their studies, which helps them avoid unemployment.”

Rashmi Sharma, an Indian student who is pursuing a postgraduate course in Information Technology at the University, says, “Apart from the independence, and not having to ask your parents for money every other day, I think the culture here also instills a sense of dignity of labour in you.” She explains that, initially, she had the job of washing dishes at a local eatery, and her parents had qualms about it, but no one else who was used to this culture seemed to mind. Soon, she ceased to mind too.

So what is the other side of the coin? Is there one at all? Aimme Charlene Zhang, who is from China, and studies Psychology at UW, presents a different side to the story. She doesn’t downplay the idea completely but she declares, throwing her hands up animatedly, and half-laughing, “Family is for togetherness. If you don’t support each other, financially or otherwise – I mean – what’s a family for?” However, she does admit that this culture encourages students to be mindful of and responsible for their expenditure, instead of allowing them to take things for granted.

Ayes and nays aside, how do the South Asian and Southeast Asian students react to this? Does it form a part of the “culture shock” package one is usually warned about? States Sridarsh Vinnakota, another Indian student majoring in Finance here at UW, “I had a flexible schedule and planned things beforehand, so it wasn’t too hectic.” He worked at the District Market in the campus and says that he had a great learning experience helping his several customers.

Yashwant, Rashmi, Aimme and Sridarsh found their transition very smooth. Several other students I interviewed happen to agree. The reason could be that most students come from metropolitan cities whose culture is influenced by that of the west, or have watched enough movies and read enough books to be acquainted with the concept of individualism in America, and know what to expect. Katie Malcolm, Instructional Consultant at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), UW, states other reasons why the change could be easy, from the teachers’ perspective. “Most professors are sympathetic to the students, and want to see them suceed. They are sometimes lenient with the assignment deadlines,” she explains.

It would be irrational to conclude, based on a tiny sample size, that no student from abroad ever faces a challenge in encountering this culture for the first time. To someone like Yen Nguyen, it would appear totally unfair. Yen was brought up in a family that took care of her and all her needs, and then she flew to Seattle to study at the University of Washington. This pampered Vietnamese girl, now pursuing International Relations and working fulltime in the housekeeping service in summer, reveals,”I had a major homesick shock, and the individualistic culture of America was one of the reasons.” She concedes that it encourages individual problem solving, cleverness and versatility, but confesses, “I was not ready, so I [found] the easiest solution, which was to distract myself with fun stuff, and this in turn was toxic.” Eventually, however, she did adapt, but she took much longer than some others, while the shift took a toll on her.

Wei Zuo, who has a PhD. in English from the University, and is also on her way to becoming an Instructional Consultant at the CTL, conducted a qualitative research on Exploring Academic Socialization and Identity of Chinese Undergraduate Students in the U.S., and she shares her results of her forthcoming paper. “I tailed six Chinese students for an entire quarter, and realised that there was no common trend in their adjustment pattern. Some had no problem while others really struggled to understand and participate in class. It depends on the student’s educational background, family and several other things,” she says. She goes on to opine that in such cases, there is no black or white; a lot of grey areas exist. She further reasons, “Many students who do face problems may not approach people at the CTL, or even their friends, to seek help. So it isn’t right to declare that very few students have adjustment issues.”

Ultimately, once the initial plunge is taken and the ripples settle – whether immediately or eventually – the experience of being independent, being out there in the world on one’s own, fending for oneself and stretching one’s limits, is indeed revitalizing and exhilarating. And if one’s support system is strong, it couldn’t get better. The individualistic culture of the US, well represented in the University of Washington in Seattle, nurtures broad-mindedness and self-sustenance, and although it could be demanding sometimes to strike that perfect balance between work and academics, the lessons learnt are totally worth the hours of hard work.

This story was produced in the 2015 SUSI program.