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“No, you can’t”. They insisted. “You can’t study Civil Engineering. What do you want to do with a Civil Engineering degree? You are a girl!”
Their objection, however bitter in my mind, was grounded in facts. What did I or could I do with a Civil Engineering degree in India? A female engineer was NOT welcome on a job site, as I got to experience it later.
“Ok, I’ll try Computer Science for a year. And we can decide then.” After all, girls who passed the All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE) were supposed to study Computer Science but perhaps “supposed to” wasn't persuasive enough for me. I did try Computer Science for a year only to prove to my parents it’s not my passion. The virtual world of codes was neither comprehendible nor attractive. I struggled through the first year until they finally agreed that I can move to Civil Engineering. The 6-hour distance between home and college was considered “far away” even though I came home every other weekend. Being the only girl in my class and the only girl in my internship program didn't make it any easier. From that first year of undergrad I knew my dreams and my ambitions had to be fulfilled beyond the borders. There was no future for me as a female engineer in India.
“No, you can’t!”, They objected, “You can’t go to US! What are you talking about? All by yourself? Who wants to pay for it? How are you going to support yourself?”
The arguments started when I discovered the plaque featuring my predecessors in the Engineering department. They had all continued their Masters in the University of Florida, USA. Apparently there was a student exchange program that offered students from my graduate college, a chance to explore the foreign education. The Dean encouraged me, “You are doing wonderful. You deserve it more than anyone. You should apply.”
I come from a family of medical doctors. All, literary all of my paternal and maternal uncles and aunts, including my parents and my younger sister now, went to Med School. Even though that was not the life my parents wanted for me, they still couldn't accept their daughter to be the trailblazer she was determined to be. The first girl in the whole family to study Civil Engineering, the first one to leave home for college, the first one to leave the country for education, the first one to live on her own. The concept_ living on your own_ is hard to grasp when generation after generation, you all live together, eat together, grow up and grow old together. Sometimes under the same roof. In a culture where cousins are like your siblings, where the whole family comes together at least once a month, moving away is petrifying. In a country where parents stand by and take care of their children for as long as kids need them, just like the kids will be taking care of them when they get old, moving creates an ambiguous hollow. Breaking patterns is not easy. There’s always a price to be paid. But the reward is worth it. A least one would hope. It took a lot of promising and begging besides planning and organizing to make this big move of my life happen.
Fall of 2013, along with a group of students I went through the paperwork to get may F1 visa. A rather painless and exciting process. We were all approved and planned our big trip together. All of us being on very tight budgets turned our suitcases into a miniature home supply department. Anything from spices to clothes, from utensils to blankets was packed tightly in three suitcases that we were eligible to carry. Anything that could save us a few dollars. The whole group stood by each other. Strangers yesterday, united by the power of aloneness. Our survival instinct bonded us with tight invisible ropes, finding ourselves without anyone to turn to. After arriving in US, we all rented apartments in the same building. Boys, our guardians by choice, on the upper levels and girls sticking together on the lower levels. None of us drove. No one had a car. It was safer to walk together. At least it felt that way. Perhaps more so after I got mugged trying to be brave and walking home by myself. How would my parents feel had they known that someone pulled a knife on me outside a store in a dark parking lot? They never found out; another little secret paving my path to independence.
My promise to my family was to study a semester and perhaps go back to India. A fake promise, as it was. The Masters’ program, the sky being the limit, the independence, the very nature of I CAN, the dream I was living; how could I give it all up? It was like eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Once you take the bite, you are forever under the spell. You can try, pressure can make you deny, but you can never undo “knowing”. There was no question for my parents that I am not going back to India especially when my father came to US and attended my graduation.
After finishing my Masters’, I had one year to work under OPT (Optional Practical Training). I had one year to find a job with someone who would be willing to apply for H1B visa for me so that I can stay in my land of dreams. Maybe after all it is true that the Universe provides the cushion when you dare to jump. It did for me.
I do question myself at times; should there be a boundary, a restrain to one’s dreams? How far should one’s heart and mind be allowed to wander? To what extend are we obligated to live our parents’ dreams? When is the thin line between obeying and autonomy trespassed? How would I keep my culture and my value alive for my children?
I don’t have the answers but I know, I dared to dream and neither regret nor fear have been a part of my curriculum. I can’t undo knowing. I can’t even pretend.