“One thing is clear: international students like me have helped bring the world to American campuses and classrooms,” writes Rajika Bhandari in her memoir, “America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibilities.” The book, in paperback, was published by She Writes Press on Sept. 14 and is available through Amazon and Bookstore.org.
Bhandari, originally from Bhopal and New Delhi, India, has lived in Irvington since 2014. She is the founder of Rajika Bhandari Advisors, a company that offers consulting and advisory services for global higher education institutions, multilateral organizations, governmental agencies, and the nonprofit sector. She is a senior adviser to the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. From 2006-2019 she worked in Manhattan for the Institute of International Education where she led the organization’s research and Open Doors programs.
Bhandari is also a sought-after keynote speaker, and the author of five academic books and one nonfiction work. She is quoted frequently in media outlets on issues concerning international education, skilled immigrants, and cultural diplomacy. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications.
In 1993, at age 22, Bhandari arrived as a self-described “accidental international student” in Raleigh, N.C. Although she went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in psychology at North Carolina State University, she was, at the time, following her heart rather than an academic dream. Her Indian boyfriend was a student at NCSU. Though that relationship ended, the urge to chart her own life’s course did not.
“By the time I did my dissertation, I had become more interested in global development issues, economic issues, and women’s issues,” Bhandari told the Enterprise. “I believe that education is our most important link to the rest of the world.”
In “America Calling,” Bhandari recounts the people, places, and attitudes she encountered, both as an international student and as a woman, in North Carolina: afternoon parties that turned into revival meetings, with the goal of converting the internationals; reactions of native North Carolina bus riders catching a whiff of foreign spices emanating from the pores of the international students; the reaction when Bhandari started to put ketchup on pizza as she would do in Delhi; and the same sexist policy, whether in India or the U.S., of women getting paid less than men to do the same job.
These memories continue to influence her thoughts and beliefs. From day one at NCSU, when she was told she could select her own classes and seminars, she realized that this was a country where you could make your own choices. That had not been the case in the schools she had attended in India.
Although from a middle-class family — her mother was a professor and her father a journalist — Bhandari had to work as a teaching assistant to pay her way at NCSU. Her earnings went toward the shared rent of an apartment, food, and other necessities. Thus, she can attest to the ways in which international students contribute to the U.S. economy, a subject much discussed this past year when a worldwide pandemic restricted movement and closed the doors of universities.
“There are so many ‘differences’ at first, it is understandable why international students can feel like they are ‘the other’ — even today,” she said. “But it is also an eye-opener for many international students to realize just how diverse the U.S. really is.”
She also points out that former President Barack Obama and current Vice President Kamala Harris are children of parents who were international students.
Both in the interview and in the last section of “America Calling,” Bhandari addressed the difficulties faced by international students in post-9/11 America and during the Trump years. Students who looked Middle Eastern or Asian were shunned in the first years after 9/11 and restricted during the previous administration. She also writes about the “business” of education and the recruitment of international students by many countries.
“I wrote this book to show the pathway that is education, and the ways in which universities in the U.S. remain a beacon to the world,” Bhandari concluded. “It is a record that needs to be told in all of its complexities.”