Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Spring Memory

It was the fifth of December 2005 and I was flying into the Salt Lake City international airport. It was a cold, dreary afternoon and the next 2 months would come to mark a most crucial and extraordinary time of my life.  There are moments that everyone experiences – moments of realization and clarity – rare to come by but instantly recognizable.  As the airplane touched the tarmac, I knew I was having one of those moments – and it terrified me.  I realized that everyone connected to me – my parents, friends – had done all that they could, to get me to this point – and from here on it was up to me - I was alone – truly and completely alone. It was the first time, I’d felt myself so vulnerable and scared. 

After failing to secure tuition funding for the first two semesters at my University, I had accrued a massive debt and when it was clear to me that no financial help was to come, I decided it was time for me to look elsewhere.  I looked at the list of universities that had accepted me, but which I had declined.  Long conversations with alumni and emails from faculty led me to believe that Utah State University was my best shot at short-term financial security. Like many decisions in life, it was one that wasn’t necessarily the best option – but the one that made most sense under circumstances. I had to live with it – and make my best of it.

The struggles and debates of the past six months played out in my mind as I sat in the window seat – peering distractedly at the changing landscape of eastern United States.  To sum up – I had roughly $500 in a bank account and an admission – period.  My list of supplies ended there.  I didn’t have any money to pay for tuition (9 graduate credits minimum) – hardly any money for rent and certainly none for an emergency.  My phone was still active for another month and the 500 would get me through for as much time – as I checked off the short list with a growing sense of foreboding, I felt like a role playing video game character with depleted resources and one life left. Except, there weren’t any replays here.  The frigid teen degree air of Utah brought me back to reality. Having grown up in Mumbai – it was the first time I had felt anything remotely so cold.  I cursed my ill-fitted clothing and rummaged hastily through the carry-on – wearing every piece of shirt I could find.  Twenty minutes later, I was standing outside in the pick up area – awkward looking and with a frozen expression of worry on my countenance.

Utah State University - My Alma Mater - image credit -

I checked myself into a friends place – the local Indian Student Institute was kind enough to board me for a week with some seniors – after an unexciting dinner, I forced myself to sleep – then I woke up – took off 3 shirts – turned up the heat a notch – and went back to sleep again.  There was a LOT of work ahead!

The next day, I took a bus to the campus and within an hour was interviewing for a grader’s job in the Computer Science department.  I got the job, it paid only $513 a month, but it waived my out of state tuition fee.  I thanked the professor dearly and asked the secretary for a signed copy of the job offer and its terms.  Next I scanned the student message board for some cheap apartments near campus and another three hours later found myself in the offices of Coldwell bankers signing a lease agreement. I put down the deposit and consciously informed the official that I could only give him a post-dated check for the rent.  My grader’s salary wasn’t due until the first of next month and I could only supply the offer letter as credence that the check would go through.  The property manager quietly reviewed the paper work and my offer letter – he had no obligation to entertain me – and I nervously waited for his decision.  Finally, looking up he extended a hand and gave me the apartment keys. I gingerly pocketed the keys and thanked the man – and offered my bank statement as proof that I really could not afford to pay rent immediately.  He assured me that it wasn’t needed and that he believed me. It would be one of the many unexpected acts of kindness from random strangers that I would never forget.

Snowcrest Apartments - Logan Utah

I arranged my belongings in the new space, and ate a bowl of cereal – after a few more minutes of sleep – I sat at the desk and jotted down a study schedule – to earn the tuition waiver and retain my status as a graduate student, I would need to clear three entrance examinations – failure to do so meant expulsion.  But I wasn’t going to let it come to that – not now. 

Over the next four weeks, I followed a strict regimen – waking up at 8am – going to the library  - studying for 4 hours – a sandwich for lunch – an hour of shut eye on the third floor – another four hours of study – coffee – sandwich for dinner – leave the library at 12 and walk back home to sleep.  No – they wouldn’t let me sleep at the library. I had asked. 

It would be months before I would be able to absorb and truly appreciate the grand vista of natural beauty and snow capped mountains that my library provided. Amidst my studies I talked to the registrars office and drew up a payment schedule for the remainder of my in-state tuition fees.  Again my University went out of its way to ensure that I still stayed enrolled in classes as I paid my way through - there aren't many institutions willing to do that. 

Some six weeks into my semester,  I was told that I had cleared the preliminary requirements and that I was also granted an in-state tuition waiver.  I received the news gladly – then went to the local Walmart – bought some groceries and came back home.  I left the bags on the kitchen counter – the apartment was empty – none of my two roommates were home.  Seizing the opportunity – I quietly slipped into the bathroom and turned on the sink and the shower taps. 

Then I sat myself on the bathroom floor – knees to the chest  - arms folded and said aloud – ‘hey – you are in your own apartment – you have groceries  - you have a steady income and you are doing well in school’ – and then I let myself feel – everything that I had been holding off – the terrifying crushing paralyzing fear – the full weight of my responsibilities – my own expectations – and the doubts of friends and foes – and above all – the overwhelming sense of relief at what was accomplished – and then I broke down – and cried quietly – cathartically – shaking – muffling – rocking back and forth – and then - finally exhausted and completely drained – I patted myself on the back – stood up – and made myself 2 scrambled eggs and toast.

Some couple years later, I ran wild across a green football ground – dressed in black robes – a tassel in my hand and the ecstasy of graduation in my veins – but I didn’t think of the bathroom floor then.  I don’t know why I thought of  it now. But its good that I did– it needn't kept in – I am OK now that its out. And I smile I say to myself – “Hey that was you – you did it !!“

- Sanket

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Anand Iyer said...

Loved each and every line of this .......brought back not so pleasant memories of 2005......was goin thru a rough patch personally coupled with the fact that deepu had passed away in Jan.....those times were really turbulent for me as well ......awesome read after a very long tym :)

Sanket Korgaonkar said...

Thanks Anand, the year 2005 was so hard for me - I've barely touched at the things I had going on in this post. I am not sure if I would have been able to handle the news of Deepu's death - it still makes me just so so sad and makes me appreciate how fickle, fragile and unfair life can be.

Hey - you know the other day I had a dream - of us - you me and Deepu - we were eating ice cream out of cones after school. Do you remember that ?? I keep having these random flash backs.

When I come back to Mumbai - we have to visit our old spots again.

The Righting Bug said...

Breath of fresh air...Its always heartening to read your posts... As Longfellow said...

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again."

I wouldn't define greatness for you... But the path you are walking, would certainly make a forlorn brother take heart....

Sanket Korgaonkar said...

Hey thanks Darshana! That was lovely to hear. And thank you for the poem - its such a great little gem - I'll treasure it. Keep reading and keep writing back :)

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