Equity & Diversity

A Passage From India

By Jessica L. Sandham — November 08, 2000 6 min read
Changing Face

In his native India, Srinivas Majji could afford to send his two children to a private, English-language school with the money he earned as an engineer. But in a country with almost 1 billion residents, he says, the competition for career and educational opportunities can be fierce—even among the upper classes.

So Majji decided to move here to Silicon Valley through an immigration program that allows skilled foreign workers to take U.S. jobs in fields where there are critical labor shortages, such as technology. He quickly landed a position with a software company.

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A Passage From India

“I think the U.S. is the land of opportunities,” Majji says. “My kids can choose their way here. In India, we would dream about our kids’ becoming doctors. Here, the education system drives the dream.”

Majji’s affluent background and link to the technology industry are typical of many recent Indian immigrants, though not all. The United States also is seeing an increase in the number of working-class Indians who are coming to this country through connections to family members who have already settled here.

“They tend to be less well-off,” says Susan Koshy, an assistant professor in Asian- American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “What we’re seeing now is a peer demarcation between the more affluent and the working- class Indian population.”

But regardless of their social or economic standing, Indian immigrants seem to have one trait in common: They consider school a top priority.

“The parents put a lot of emphasis on education, and for most of them, college is a given,” says Shalini Choudhry, a senior language- assessment technician for California’s 31,200-student Fremont Unified School District. “There’s no question. They come in at whatever level, but parents expect that their children will be successful in school.”

Rapid Growth

With little fanfare, India has become one of the United States’ largest sources of immigrants in recent years. It ranked sixth among the countries of origin for U.S. immigration in 1999, after Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba, and China.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of foreign-born immigrants from India rose 124 percent, from 450,000 to 1 million—a higher rate of growth than for any other Asian nation.

FREMONT (CALIF.) UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Enrollment: 31,200
  • Student profile: 42 percent non-Hispanic white, 38 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 14 percent Hispanic, 4 percent African-American, 1 percent American Indian/Native Alaskan
  • Percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price meals: 18.7
  • Superintendent: Sharon Belshaw-Jones

A major reason is the number of Indians who, like Majji, have received six-year visas through the H1-B immigration program. Indians accounted for 43 percent of all H1-B visas issued between October 1999 and February 2000—the largest share by far of any country, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

And their numbers are expected to continue to rise. Last month, President Clinton signed into law a measure that will increase the limit on H-1B visas from 115,000 a year to 195,000 a year for the next three years.

But despite their growing presence, relatively little is known about Indian immigrants and how they’re adapting to American schools.

“The public consciousness about who Indians are and where they come from is much more amorphous than it is about other immigrant groups,” Koshy says.

No state has been affected by the recent wave of Indian immigrants as much as California. Here in Fremont, Choudhry says, the schools enroll Indian students from both working-class and more affluent families.

Generally speaking, Choudhry says, people coming from the region of Punjab in northwest India are less well-off and more likely to have limited English skills than immigrants from other parts of the country. (However, she adds, even those working-class families tend to be more financially secure than some other immigrant groups in the district, such as Hispanics.) Of the 538 Indian students in Fremont who were identified by the district as being limited in their knowledge of English, more than half listed Punjabi as their home language.

But some children from better-off families who attended English- speaking schools in India also come to the district with a range of language abilities.

At the district’s language-assessment center one day this fall, a recent immigrant and H-1B visa recipient expresses concern when he learns that his daughter will be placed with a teacher who had received specialized training in teaching students with limited English skills. His son, meanwhile, who is several years older, is considered to be fluent in English. Both children had attended an English-language school in India.

Such variations are common, Choudhry says. “Even though both students were in good schools, the little ones tend to speak less English at school and speak their home language at home,” she says. “The older ones tend to be more English-fluent.”

Great Expectations

While no general descriptions can adequately cover everyone in a particular community, some educators here say that the overwhelming majority of the Indian families they deal with share key values that enhance their children’s school experiences. Among those values, they say, are a reverence for education and a disciplined approach to work.

Chris Hertz, the principal of Fremont’s Warwick Elementary School, says he has been impressed with how polite Indian families have been to him—even when he had to tell one family he had no choice but to send their child to another school because no more classroom space was available.

“I can’t think of another group who has talked to me in such a respectful way,” Hertz says. “I know this is stereotypical, but I can’t help but have this impression. These children are motivated, and their parents are motivated.”

Indian students, for their part, seem to gripe somewhat about the high standards their parents set for them, even as they try to rise to meet them. Eveleen Bhasin, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School who moved here from India when she was 4, said that, to her parents, “a B is like a D or F.”

“It would be disappointing to them if I didn’t do well,” Bhasin says.

Amandeep Lal, a 15-year-old student at Kennedy who came to the United States from the Punjab region in 1995, said many Indian parents are motivated by a desire to give their children a better education and more career opportunities than they themselves received.

“I learned English here, and it was hard,” Amandeep says. “I didn’t know anything at first, but I got it after a while. Now my parents say, ‘Study, study, study, so you can be a doctor.’ ”

Relationship Issues

Indian students interviewed here tend to share another characteristic that affects their educational experience: Their parents usually discourage them from getting involved in romantic relationships until they are much older.

Renu Bhargava, who has an 11-year-old daughter in 6th grade, as well as a daughter who is a senior in high school and a son who recently graduated, says that in India, relationships between girls and boys are not encouraged until they are “more mature.” For that reason, she explains, she often feels uncomfortable with the coed dances and other social events that are a part of the traditional coming-of-age experience for American teenagers.

Funding Box

Funding for this series is provided in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation. Scheduled installments are:

Sept. 27, 2000: While the number and diversity of school-age children will grow, they will represent a smaller proportion of the total U.S. population.

Oct. 18, 2000: As suburbs creep farther outward from the nation’s cities, schools in the inner and outer rings will face new and disparate challenges.

Nov. 8, 2000: Schools will have to adjust as Hispanic immigrants fan out to areas beyond those where they have traditionally settled.

Nov. 29, 2000: In more than half the states, at least one in five residents will be 65 or older in 2025. This aging of the population will raise new issues for educators.

Dec. 13, 2000: Child poverty will continue to challenge educators, as the ranks of working, but still poor, families swell.

“Prom night, junior high dances—it’s a huge concern for us,” Bhargava says. “A lot of conflict happens with kids when they start wanting to go to these dances. They feel isolated, but the parents feel torn.”

Ultimately, Bhargava says, she allowed her son to attend his senior prom, “even though I was very uncomfortable with it.”

Shezad Lakhani, a sophomore at Kennedy High, says Indian students should take their parents’ values to heart.

“I used to play a lot of sports in India, but now I just go home and study,” says Lakhani, who moved here with his parents from Bombay three years ago. “They think that you should exploit all the opportunities you can get, and then live your life.

“They think education should come first,” he adds, “and they’re right.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as A Passage From India

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