Influx of Indian students finds secure community at USC

At the Manas grocery store and restaurant on Vermont Avenue near USC, graduate students from Mumbai and New Delhi stop by late at night to pick up a batch of malai kofta, vegetable dumplings, to fuel their engineering study sessions.

Or they may sit down for a dinner of tandoori chicken and discuss their latest cricket matches.

"If they miss home, they can always come here," said Manas co-owner Kumar Venkata. Increasingly, more USC students do.

With its enormous freezers stocked with microwaveable curries and garlic naan breads of India, Manas is a busy off-campus canteen of sorts for what is said to be the largest group of Indian students in the United States and a culinary symbol of an academic tidal wave from the Indian Ocean.

With a rising middle class better able to finance American university degrees and schools like USC actively recruiting them, Indians have doubled their presence at U.S. campuses in the last decade. Numbering more than 83,000 last year, they are the largest group of international students in the country, overtaking the Chinese in 2002, surveys show.

USC has had the largest number of foreign students of any campus in the U.S. for six years; last year it enrolled about 7,100 from across the globe, including those on extended internships, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education.

More than 1,500 Indian citizens are full-time students at USC, only about 100 fewer than the number of African American students there.

The large contingent of Indian students runs popular Friday-night cricket games under the lights at Cromwell Field, with squads named Trojan Tigers and Leavy Lions. (Some Pakistanis and Australians also play.) Forget about the formal white uniforms; here, cardinal-and-gold T-shirts are the norm and cricketers end their huddles by shouting the USC slogan, "Fight on!"

"It's a big, very big Indian community. It's pretty amazing," said Gaurav Kumar, a master's student from Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, who is president of USC's Assn. of Indian Students.

About 9% of all graduate and professional-school students at USC are Indian citizens, heavily concentrated in the Viterbi School of Engineering and its computer-related classes. Kumar, who is studying signal processing and sound systems, said the engineering school's status -- eighth in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of graduate programs -- and its proximity to so many West Coast high-tech firms make it a desirable brand name among ambitious Indian families.

For the last five years, the Viterbi school has sponsored recruiting trips to India and hosted crowds of potential applicants at hotel receptions in Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore. The school also has hired a consultant in India to boost the USC name there. The resulting tuition income -- without much financial aid spending -- helps USC pay for research and professors' salaries, officials said.

Master's students from overseas usually receive no financial aid for Viterbi's $33,500 annual tuition and fees (housing and other living costs are extra); doctoral students, a much smaller group, often are awarded fellowships.

"It's very clear that Indian students and Indian parents are willing to invest a lot of money into their education since that's the path to success. And now more of them have that money," said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute for International Education.

The increased enrollment from India at U.S. universities also reflects a shortage of space in graduate programs in India, as well as the relaxation of some of the strict procedures to obtain a student visa imposed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Indians enroll at U.S. schools for the expected rewards. "We come here and pay for a rather expensive master's and hopefully get placed in a better job. It's a gamble and a trade-off," said Kumar, 24, who wants to work in the sound side of electronics and possibly do management consulting.

Parag Salve, who grew up in the central Indian city of Nagpur, briefly attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and transferred to USC because it is closer to the computer-chip industry he wants to enter. Plus, he enjoys Los Angeles, which like India is a multiethnic, multilingual society. "It really makes you feel at home. The temperature, the sun, everything," said Salve, who is 23 and active in USC cricket games.

Indian students have organized an Internet welcome wagon that helps newcomers find housing near USC and offers tips, such as "Typically, 'North' side of campus is considered to be safe."

They have also boosted attendance at events sponsored by the Hindu Student Organization. On Tuesday evenings, a group of Americans and Indians gather at the glass-walled campus chapel for an Aarti prayer service, ritually passing a plate of three candles before an altar statue of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha and sharing a traditional serving of almonds at the end.

Students from India recently gathered at Dockweiler State Beach and Huntington Beach to celebrate the giddy spring festival of Holi, following the tradition of throwing colored powder on one another until their skin, hair and clothes looked as if they had just been through a rainbow.

Still, the transition to America is not always smooth. High rents push some students into overcrowded and dilapidated housing that other USC students avoid. Some young people from India, more sheltered than many American peers, are shocked by the drinking, parties and dating patterns they observe here. And they have concerns about crime.

At a recent meeting of the Assn. of Indian Students, USC public safety officer Erwin Valencia spoke about such services as free, late-night escorted rides to off-campus housing. Valencia, born in El Salvador, now knows so many Indians -- "I see them all over" -- that he has learned many Hindi phrases, jotting down new ones in a notebook he carries.

"Milka khushi huee," (Nice to meet you) he told the astonished group

Whatever their regional language at home, exchange students from India generally speak English well, albeit sometimes with strong accents. They must, however, adjust to a less formal style of teaching and learning, said professor Cauligi Raghavendra, who came from Bangalore to earn a doctorate at UCLA in 1982 and now is a senior associate dean at the Viterbi school.

Still, he said, students from India today cope with classroom practices and California culture more easily than his generation did.

"Even before they come here, these kids already have one foot in the U.S. They see the Internet, the social networks, the movies," said Raghavendra.

The path after graduation is changing too. It was common in the previous generation for Indian students to seek to stay in the U.S. after school. Now, many say they want to burnish their resumes in the U.S. for a few years, then return home to partake in the high-tech boom that is transforming parts of their homeland.

"I would definitely like going back because the scene back at home is amazing," said Urvi Savla, 24, who came to USC from Mumbai last fall to study engineering management. "With all the dot-coms, the job market is huge, and if you have a USC degree, it does make a difference. The name counts. It's a brand name."

Manas, the grocery store, was born out of USC's popularity among foreign students. Venkata moved from India to enroll in a USC graduate program in computer science but dropped out and six years ago started the shop, catering to former classmates who had trouble finding Indian food near campus. Three years ago, he and his brother, Kanoj Kotla, added the restaurant.

At first glance, the Indian complex is a jarring presence on a commercial block near West 29th Street otherwise dominated by Latino-flavored music and clothing stores. But Manas, which is named after a sacred lake near Tibet, is doing good business, with nearly 2,000 food items for sale and a related travel agency.

Venkata has noticed a rising affluence among students from India.

"People are buying new cars and going on spring vacations. That was unheard of when I was at USC," he said.