(This letter is part of a series from The Indian Express where we bring you the experiences of students from different overseas universities. From scholarships and loans to culinary and cultural experiences – students tell us how different life is in these countries and the things they are learning other than academic)
Being a small town boy, I had never dreamed of studying abroad. I thought about jumping on the bandwagon like every other student – getting good grades in school and college, getting a lucrative job, and then retiring. However, life had its own plan and I ended up pursuing a master’s degree in Italy and eventually enrolled for a PhD as well. Hello, I am Satyesh Shanker Awasthi and here is my story – from a simple boy from Lucknow to a researcher at Politecnico di Milano, Italy.
It was when I was pursuing higher education at the National Institute of Technology in Karnataka that I was exposed to the outside world. I applied for an exchange program during the summer holidays of my third and fourth year and went to France. It was a completely new world for me. When I met French students, I learned about their curriculum and the opportunities offered to international students in European countries. Before making the final decision to apply abroad, I took advice from my elders and also worked on taking stock of the mechanical industry.
I worked at the Research Design and Standards Organization (RDSO), an Indian railway organization in Lucknow. After much deliberation, I have concluded that pursuing an MS is a better option.
How I was selected for the scholarship
Once I decided to do a masters and then a doctorate, I researched colleges. I applied to Politecnico di Milano because it was among the top 20 universities in my field according to the QS World Ranking. Also, as I had applied for scholarships, my tuition fees were also reduced.
There were three types of scholarship programs – ASP, DSU (University Financial Aid – Diritto Allo Studio Universitario) and Invest Your Talent. The DSU is provided by the Italian government and is valid for any institute. Invest your talent, as the name suggests, look for internships to allow you to invest your talent.
I was offered DSU and ASP – Alta Scuola Politecnica; however, since you cannot have two exchanges simultaneously, I chose ASP. The latter is more of a program in which a student must write him a cover letter, telling him his story, how he decided to do a master’s degree in the subject and what his plans are to go further. Based on your cover letter, you are shortlisted for the interview.
I am happy to have chosen the ASP because it requires a lot of involvement on the part of the students. They made us work on projects, learn more about technology and work on gadgets and improve them. He also pays 400 euros per month.
We had an intensive 4×1 week course and related project during the two years of the course. And during each week, we were divided into a team of designers, architects and engineers. Each team had to present a project on the last day based on the work we had applied. We worked on a major project with a company/startup/research group on current research topics. I worked with Artemide, a design lighting company in Milan and the subject was “light and sensitive – city of the future”.
Course more updated
Academically, European universities offer higher education through constant curriculum upgrading based on the most recent and approved studies. The course is also more advanced. In India, while professors know their subjects well, there is a lack of collaboration between industry and academia. In European colleges, in general, there is more knowledge application as compared to Indian institutes.
Engineering schools in Italy are well funded and hence students can work on advanced research. While my university, Politecnico di Milano, is notoriously known for being more theoretical than other universities in the country, it is far better than most Indian universities.
To manage my finances, I signed up as a “university tutor” and taught math and English to a student at the school. There was a program called 150 hours where you will be paid for volunteer work in college.
To relax, I play badminton. It’s always been my passion, it keeps me sane. I can make analogies between me and badminton. It helps me think better. In badminton, you have to draw up a strategy and think about the future as in life.
I fell in love with Italy
When I arrived in Italy, I stayed in an Airbnb for a month. A group of Indians on Facebook were resourceful and helped me rent a room. As I am a vegetarian, I learned cooking before leaving for Italy. I even found a vegetarian roommate through the Facebook group. I cooked in bulk so the food would last a day or two.
I fell in love with Italy, its history, its culture and especially its gastronomy. They have beautiful monuments like in India. The feeling of living away from home in this new country was indescribable. It’s been five years and I’m still enjoying every moment of it. I miss home, but this new experience has kept me motivated.
The culture of Italy and India is similar; people are family oriented. At first, I didn’t interact with the locals and my social circle was mainly made up of university students and professors. Most Chinese and Indians have their own groups. However, I started interacting with students from other countries, including locals. Now I have a pretty diverse group of friends. Here, people use English only for business purposes, but prefer their mother tongue wherever they can. They appreciate you trying to learn their language and communicating with them in Italian. I suggest that if someone wants to go to a non-English speaking country, they should learn the language.
COVID-19 in Italy
During COVID-19, I did not return home for two reasons. First, I could take the disease to India. The second reason being that I had completed all my courses and exams, but my thesis was incomplete and I only wanted to come back after I graduated. My thesis was more experimental for which I had to be present.
Italy was hit hard by COVID-19 in 2020. We were completely isolated and couldn’t meet anyone. It was frustrating at first, but the good part was that I learned Italian during this time. I realized that living alone is depressing and I am now planning to complete my PhD and return to India.
My advice to students
First ask yourself if you want to work or do a doctorate. This will help to choose the country and the university. Also do some research and learn more about the alumni of the universities you shortlisted. Also, you should have a five- or ten-year plan in mind. I was sure I wanted to continue my studies because in India, after BTech, I would not have had the profile I was aiming for. Also, there is not much research and development in the field of mechanical engineering in India.
If you are going to a non-English speaking country, try to learn the local language. At the end of your course, if you know the local language, your application will be considered against others.
Learn life skills like cooking and cleaning. Be open to new experiences. Make efforts to learn more about the culture of this country and make friends. Don’t expect people to come and talk to you. Try to explore the country. This will boost your confidence.