Life in a Foreign University | ‘Culture shock in Belgium, sunset at 3 pm and how Google Translate made life easy’

After completing high school at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) in Gaya, Bihar, in 2012, I took a year off to prepare for engineering entrance exams. Subsequently, in 2013, I enrolled at Indian Maritime University, Visakhapatnam, a central university under the Ministry of Shipping, to pursue a BTech in Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering.

Following that, I obtained a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering specialised in Naval Architecture from the University of Liege, Belgium, followed by an EMShip master’s degree in Hydrodynamics for Ocean Engineering from Ecole Central Nantes, France, and then a master’s in Coastal Engineering from the University of Delaware, USA.

What led me to study abroad

My thought of studying abroad was prompted by the recession in the shipping industry which significantly impacted our campus placements in 2016-17. As a topper of my batch and with a huge education loan, I wasn’t interested in working for a smaller firm with low pay, insane work hours, and a toxic culture. But as we grow, our ambitions and goals change. That’s what happened to me.

My perspective on life changed from the first to the fourth year, especially during the placement season. When the shipping recession hit, recruitment drastically fell in 2017, forcing me to change my career options. As people say, adversity brings opportunity.

I studied for a Master degree in Mechanical Engineering Specialised Focused to Naval Architecture, the University of Liege, Belgium.

One day in my final semester class, I heard that one of my batchmates (who was in the bottom 10 per cent with average grades of 6/10) got into a university in the USA. Never considering studying abroad in the previous 21 years of my life, out of competitiveness, I browsed the university website, eligibility criteria, application process, tuition fees, and associated costs.

Coming from a financially strained family, I was certain that I couldn’t afford the application fees for these universities in the USA, let alone the tuition fees. Although I didn’t tell any classmates that I was exploring studying abroad, I am sure they would have laughed and pitied me if they knew.

I don’t know how I got the courage to ask my professors for recommendations, considering they knew my background and financial constraints. Thankfully, my professors never doubted me, perhaps because of my gold medals and my status as the batch topper.

The competitiveness inside me fueled my determination, and I started searching for universities in other countries like the UK, which offered fully funded Commonwealth scholarships, and in Japan, which had fully funded MEXT scholarships. Within a month, I had admission letters from a couple of UK universities and some partial scholarships.

I applied for the J N TATA Endowment interest-free loans and made it to the final round, but I was ultimately unsuccessful. However, I learned a lot — how to write a motivation letter, a statement of purpose, draft recommendation letters, and streamline my resume for specific scholarships or courses by May-June 2017.

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By the start of summer in May 2017, with the university campus closed, I had no job offers or full scholarships/financial support to pursue a course abroad, even though I had offers from the University of Strathclyde, University of Newcastle, Queen Mary University, and a few other universities.

Time was running out. I had just graduated with a gold medal but had no job offers. Everyone else went home, and I was stuck alone in the college hostel, juggling various life goals. I considered pursuing a master’s at JNU (due to the very low fees), preparing for the UPSC, or writing a bank exam or any general exam to have something to fall back on. I filled out applications for JNU, various banks, and my alma mater.

Out of serendipity, in the first week of July, my placement officer informed me that Cochin Shipyard Limited (a public sector unit with good pay) would come for campus placements for those who were not placed. It felt like a second chance. I wrote the test and stood first among all the naval architecture applicants from IIT Madras, IIT Kharagpur, IMUs, Cochin University, Andhra University, etc. Later, I interviewed and joined Cochin Shipyard as an assistant manager (naval architect). A government job —what more could a financially strained kid dream of?

A year passed without thinking about studying abroad, and I got married and settled in Kochi, Kerala. Later, my dream of studying abroad resurfaced, perhaps, due to the 10-12 hour workdays. I started reapplying to UK universities with better applications and a stronger CV. I aimed for a Chevening Scholarship and a MEXT scholarship in Japan, as one of my colleagues at work had received both. I made it to the second stage of the Chevening Scholarship but wasn’t called for an interview, which was disappointing.

Fast forward to January 30/31, 2019, I was transferred to another department at Cochin Shipyard. Again, serendipity played a role. I was browsing the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus Scholarship in Ship Design and Offshore Structures page and realised the deadline was the next day. With no time to review my motivation letter, old recommendation letter, and resume, I uploaded whatever I had and submitted the application, then forgot about it.

A month later, in February/March 2019, I heard back from the course coordinator. I was among the top 1 per cent of applicants and would receive a fully funded scholarship once funding was allocated from the European Union in May/June. I thought it was a scam, but one of my senior graduates confirmed it was genuine. I even researched the course coordinator and emailed him to confirm.

Culture shock, empathy and focus on practicality: My first day in Belgium

Like everyone else, I was also very excited to move abroad and did extensive research on academics and scholarships. However, I forgot to research food, weather, and the day-to-day stuff. I had a preconceived notion that universities abroad had cafeterias like Indian universities, where everything would be provided for a fee. Due to this, I didn’t carry any utensils or snacks and was left unprepared.

I didn’t even get an international roaming pack for my SIM card, but I managed at my layover airport in Moscow because an Indian student flying to London had hacked the airport Wi-Fi and shared the password during our conversation. Then I flew to Brussels and faced some issues in communication due to my accent, too. A sweet incident I remember from my first day in Belgium is when I was anxious about missing my stop, but a stranger ensured I deboarded at my station.

The real shock came when I took the bus from the station to my dormitory. The bus stopped about 100 meters from the dormitory, but I couldn’t see any signboard and got totally lost. Unlike in India, you will not always find people around you who can guide you.

Another shocker for me was the pin-drop silence on main roads since I was so used to the hustle-bustle of busy Indian roads. The short days also took me by surprise. Waking up at 8 am in darkness and seeing the sunset at 3 pm was also shocking.

I had several sweet encounters with local people helping me out in Belgium. I remember going to an office for administrative work where the woman there didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak French. We had a 20-minute conversation via Google Translate.

In the first semester, I dealt with depression and loneliness, as I was a quiet introvert and had a hard time making friends. My studies suffered too — I was spiralling downwards, understanding nothing in the courses. This bothered me more because I had always been a perfect “A” student during my BTech. For one major assignment, I failed to put in the required effort and then submitted a senior’s report, which was caught in the plagiarism test.

My tutor took it to the department head, who took it to the administration, but my course professor never pointed it out in front of my classmates. In India, you rarely find such an empathetic professor who doesn’t want to demean you in front of the whole class. He even went a step further and mailed the Belgian embassy to issue my wife a pending visa, and luckily, she arrived a day before Belgium went into lockdown due to Covid-19.

(This letter is part of a series by The Indian Express where we bring to you the experiences of students at different foreign universities. From scholarships and loans to food and cultural experiences — students tell us how life is different in those countries and things they are learning other than academics)


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