American students find boomtown opportunities in India

An internship, plus noise and spicy food

Anu Anand Hall By Anu Anand Hall

DELHI, India – Phillip Wood, 22, is trying to explain why he came to India for his summer internship. But the noise and spectacle around him are proving distracting.

“There’s a crazy safety demonstration going on outside my office in which they’re shooting off a fire extinguisher,” says Wood, speaking from the Bangalore headquarters of Infosys, one of India’s top business consulting and technology companies. “It’s really strange. Just another day in India for me.”

American Philip Wood takes time off from his internship at Infosys in Pondicherry on India’s eastern coast. (Anu Anand Hall)

With its kamikaze traffic, overwhelming population and pungent smells, India is relatively low on the list of exchange destinations for American students. But with the U.S. economy in the doldrums, more American students than ever are venturing here to study, intern or work.

“In 2011, I hit the job market pretty hard, but that didn’t work,” says Wood, a graduate student of science and information management from the University of Washington in Seattle. “This summer, it really came down to internships in Seattle, London or Bangalore and I thought to myself, ‘When am I ever going to get a chance to live in India?’ There’s something very Kerouac-ian about packing up and going.”

During the 2009-2010 academic year, there was a 44 percent increase in the number of American students choosing India from the previous year, according to the Institute of International Education, a non-profit research and advocacy group based in New York.

The overall numbers are still small: only 2,690 American students participated in study abroad programs in India in the 2009-2010 academic year. Meanwhile nearly 105,000 Indians studied at American institutions during the same period, according to the U.S. State Department.

But Karl Gruschow, program manager for the William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India at the American India Foundation (AIF), says India’s stellar growth is likely to increase the country’s draw for American students and recent college grads seeking adventure and unique experience for their resumes.

“The economic downturn is pushing people to go abroad if they were already inclined,” says Gruschow. “Americans are looking at more creative options.”

American Monica Cason next to a Hindu ascetic in Hampi, India. (Allie Gaines)

Reassuring Mom

Monica Cason, 20, traveled to India despite her mother’s worst fears.

Cason, 20, a junior at Claremont-McKenna College near Los Angeles, applied for an internship at Infosys’ San Francisco office. They suggested she go to India instead.

“I was really shocked, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting,” she says. “My mother was really concerned and hoping I wouldn’t get the internship. I think her main impression was what she saw on “Slumdog Millionaire.” She thought India was all people trying to cheat you, people wanting to kidnap you…force you into the sex trade. She was also worried that I was going to starve because I really can’t handle spicy food.”

Cason’s mother was right about the food, if little else.

President Obama has called the U.S.-India relationship one of the “defining partnerships of the 21st century.” Yet, according to the State Department, the pool of Americans ready to manage the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the U.S. and India is small, due partly to limited opportunities for American students in India. The department recently launched the “Passport to India” initiative to encourage further links.

Currently, Infosys’ “InStep” program is one of few regular internship opportunities offered in India. The company is hosting more than 150 international interns this year of which 32 are American.

Limited study abroad programs are also offered through Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. And the American India Foundation (AIF), set up by ex-President Bill Clinton, sponsors 30 American fellows each year in India.

As the Indian summer blazes outside, Lorenz Noe, 23, practices Hindi with his Indian colleagues in a tiny rooftop office in New Delhi. Noe, a current AIF fellow, is learning to negotiate life in a country bursting at the seams: from the crippling poverty to the lack of steady electricity, working plumbing or clean water.

“India has everything in one place. Really everything you could ever study or want to know about: how economies develop, urbanization – it’s all happening here,” says Noe, a tall, soft-spoken political science and economics major from Santa Monica, California who is now working for Micro Home Solutions, a social enterprise company helping build safe, low-income housing for millions of India’s urban poor. “I can read The Economist or The New York Times all I want about India, but it just does not substitute for being here and experiencing it every single day.”

The maturation of the Indian community in the U.S. has also led to a growing familiarity with India among Americans, prompting younger generations especially to consider Indian cities over more traditional student exchange destinations like London and Paris, says Payal Rajpal, AIF’s communications manager.

“I think people in the U.S. are starting to connect the dots on India,” says Rajpal. “Bollywood movies have become more popular. More colleges are teaching Hindi and South Asian studies.”

Phillip Wood, the Infosys intern who will return to Seattle in July, says India has already changed his career prospects.

“I put this internship on my LinkedIn profile and I had a couple of recruiters contact me,” Wood says. “They’re interested in using me as a mediator between U.S. and Indian offices. I’ve gone from not being able to find a job to having people call me and say, ‘Go have fun and come back and call us!’”