It’s nice to see word-of-mouth marketing in action and its result.
That’s what happened when Frostburg State saw an increase from eight to 78 Indian students in a matter of a year, mainly all enrolling in a master’s program in applied computer science.
It’s hard to say who exactly was the first person to spread the word, but the stories of the people here now were incredible to hear.
Mohan Vorganti, as he Americanized his name, left video game powerhouse EA to pursue his master’s at Frostburg because he wanted to be among Americans. Another, Shanthan Mareddy, also wanted to come to America even though he already earned a master’s degree in computer systems engineering from the University of East London!
Mohan and Shanthan would hear from their friends and family, either through texts or Facebook posts, and then would also tell their friends and family, too, about coming to Frostburg.
In a short time, the students formed their own cultural club, hosted a large event celebrating the Indian holiday Diwali, organized cricket matches and yoga sessions and ingrained themselves in the community.
8,000-mile Journey to Frostburg Beyond Rewarding to Indian Students and Their Hosts
By Charles Schelle
Spending Sundays rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Wednesday nights competing at trivia in Dante’s Bar could sum up the downtime
for many Frostburg State University students. It was true for Mohan Vorganti, a 24-year-old then-master’s degree student from India who became just another Bobcat living the typical American twentysomething life.
But thanks to his presence, and that of 36 other Indian students studying at FSU last fall, the Bobcat experience for American students also includes cricket, yoga and customs from the Indian holiday, Diwali. No one at the University could anticipate these cultural exchanges becoming so popular, or that the population of Indian students would grow so fast.
“I come from a diverse country, but they’re very open to foreigners here,” said Vorganti, who received his master’s degree in computer science in December. “The way they received me, that’s overwhelming. That’s why they call America the land of the immigrants.”
Actually, nobody could anticipate FSU receiving so many Indian students in such a short time.
“We had fewer than 10 Indian students last year,” said Victoria Gearhart ’12/M’15, asso- ciate director of the Center for International Education (CIE). “Those students here last year started telling us, ‘We have cousins who want to come to FSU. We have some friends who want to come to FSU.’
“Little by little we kept hearing reports
of friends, cousins, family members, and Graduate Services telling us of this increase
in students. This summer it occurred to us that, ‘Wow, we would have a huge group of students coming.’” All told, FSU went from having eight Indian students in spring of 2015 to 78 in the current semester.
That number is expected to continue climb- ing, in part thanks to Vorganti himself. His post in a Facebook group of 37,000 Indian students looking to obtain their master’s degrees in the U.S. went viral among its membership as Vorganti urged his Indian
peers to broaden their horizons, citing FSU as a place to do just that.
“My inbox was filled with people asking me questions,” he said. So were the inboxes for FSU’s Graduate Services and CIE, so much so that those offices enlisted the help of current Indian students to provide answers.
Coming to America
Most of the influx of Indian students come from southeastern India, which includes Vorganti’s hometown of Hyderabad. The 425-year-old city is in a tech industry boom where companies like Google, Monster and Dell all have a presence. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is from the same city, where it happens to host the company’s largest research and development office outside of North America.
Vorganti had a comfortable job working for video game maker Electronic Arts as a quality assurance engineer in its mobile division in India. Yes, he tested video games for a living, with one of his biggest projects being The Sims FreePlay for Android devices.
“When I got the job, I updated my Facebook status: ‘All my life my parents were scolding me for playing video games, and now it’s earning me my bread and butter,’” Vorganti said, beaming.
Interacting with developers from America during product development, Vorganti wanted to broaden his horizons and immerse himself in American culture. He thought he would get that at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, but when he arrived, he saw that every student in his computer science classes looked like him.
“I thought, ‘OK, I have come this far, and if I wanted to get a master’s degree in India, I would easily be getting that without spending thousands of dollars,’” he said. “But I came here to do something unique, something where I could learn from the people who are surrounding me.”
After searching state by state for master’s programs in applied computer science, he found Frostburg. He transferred, and it proved to be the right place for him.
His passion for Frostburg spilled over to that Facebook post: “The whole point of study abroad is not to sit in a class of Indians and hang around Indians all the time instead of exploring people from other countries and cultures,” he wrote.
His phone lit up with questions and mes- sages from students in the 37,000-member group asking how they can apply, what grades they need and if they can transfer, and those same messages soon flooded inboxes at FSU offices.
“They are definitely coming for our Computer Science program. FSU has a great computer science program for graduate stu- dents,” Gearhart said. “This type of marketing – word of mouth – has been successful. Our students have a great experience here. They’re making those connections, so they want other students to have those experiences.”
Shanthan Mareddy is among the Indian computer science students at FSU thanks to word-of-mouth marketing. Mareddy heard about FSU from a friend last year and finished his first semester in December.
Mareddy, also from Hyderabad, previously earned a master’s degree in computer systems engineering – integrated systems from the University of East London, which had 120 Indian students. He, too, felt as if he never left India and wanted a more diverse experi- ence. Now at Frostburg, he’s earning another master’s degree while learning about database management in classes where Americans blend with students from Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and India.
“I love this place, and I love the people around here,” he said. “It’s totally different from India and totally different from the U.K. They give you a lot of opportunities to explore your thoughts and dreams. It makes you a better person,” Mareddy said.
Bringing India to Frostburg
The transition to American life and studies wasn’t seamless for Vorganti, who Americanized his name from SaiMohan Voragantee. Homesickness hit hard during that first semester and his grades suffered.
“But the hospitality in town was so awe- some that I found ways to overcome it,” he said.
CIE is that first touch of hospitality that the students receive, helping students with processing their visa applications, potential questions they need to answer at the embassy and, in this case, finding housing.
“Many of the Indian students don’t know each other until they get here. The current Indian students will meet with those students, talk with them and make those housing arrangements,” Gearhart said. “Typically we don’t help students find housing off campus, but due to this large increase, we’re not just going to sit back and not help them. We’re going to assist them and make it a great experience when they arrive.”
As Vorganti connected with Americans, more Indian students came to campus, start- ing a way to bring the two cultures together to go beyond conversations about Bollywood and chicken curry.
A new student organization called the Indian and South Asian Student Association (ISASA) formed to help bring some of the comforts of home to FSU.
“A major part of the Indian Student Association is to keep them engaged with activities, so their brain is occupied all the time, and they don’t feel homesick,” he said.
They banded together for some pick-up cricket matches on the softball field when they noticed American students started to show up and watch. Come October, the association called out for students, faculty and staff to join in on the fun.
So many people showed up, it was enough for three cricket teams. Forty percent of the 50 people who showed up were non-Indian. “Even in India, we wouldn’t have that many show up,” Vorganti said.
Nithin Kovuri of Tirupati, India, was in charge of setting up the cricket match. The computer science graduate student thinks the game will lead to something bigger in 2016.
“Right now, we are deciding on forming a cricket club,” he said. “The seasons don’t cooperate here. I’ve learned that the winters are very harsh, so we hope to have more participation in the spring semester.”
Then came yoga sessions, taught by Sampath Mora, who studied under a yoga master in India. Seventy people registered for the first session, forcing the group to find a larger space and to take down all of the promotional flyers on campus.
In November, Indian students invited the campus community to celebrate Diwali, a holiday described as the “festival of lights.
Interim President Bowling lit the Diwali candle to commence the celebration that included multiple song and dance acts from the Indian student population. Following the performance, it was time to break bread when the Indian contingent brought out a buffet worth of homemade dishes for the audience to devour.
“Your enthusiasm and your engagement in this campus community and your desire to share your culture with us are what our University should be all about,” Bowling told the students during the Diwali celebration.
It’s all part of the changing face of Frostburg.
“You drive on Main Street and you quickly realize Frostburg is changing. You see Indian students walking down on one side of the road and see Chinese students walking on the other side of the road,” Gearhart said. “We’re definitely becoming more diverse. I believe not only our campus but our community is embracing that.”