“What if he wasn’t Indian, but American? Perhaps even Malaysian?”

Food for thought;

An Indian guy I chatted with tonight was baffled when I asked if there were any government scholarships from India he could try applying for to help realize his PhD aspirations. We somehow ended up speaking at length about the graduate program here and how funding is surprisingly bleaker than one would’ve guessed and therefore, inevitably, even harder for international students.

He struck me as someone who genuinely wants to pursue the PhD because he’s intellectually curious, plus obviously very smart. He’d applied to fifteen schools and was accepted into fourteen – the fifteenth one was the dream school north from here, he said and laughed. The irony, don’t you think? I nodded my head, and admitted it was also the only school I failed to get into.

It’s his hunger for knowledge and obvious satisfaction that he’s able to sit in all these wonderful, never-thought-of classes that caught my attention immediately. He said he’s auditing four classes now, on top of the three he’s officially signed up in, because he can’t decide which to drop. “I’m taking a history class next quarter, I’ve never taken a history class before!” I could hear the glee in his voice. “I realize that half of our time goes towards homework, or mine at least. So I’m trying to fill that other half sitting in the other lectures.” I joked and called him an overachiever, because I mostly spend my free time sleeping.

It’s funny how much wisdom is gained through a random, one-time conversation with a stranger, perhaps now a newfound friend. I don’t know anything about him and neither does he with me, but his sincerity and elation over the bare bones of knowledge just gets to me so effortlessly and affectingly. He wants to keep going forward in the program because he genuinely loves what he’s learning, simple as that.

Life as we all know it however, is unfortunately not so simple.

So when the topic of funding came up, I nonchalantly posed a question. He looked almost insulted before responding, “Do you know that 70% of Indians are below the poverty line? Families at home barely make enough to feed themselves and you want me to take what little money they have and put that into my Stanford fund? That’s a crime!”

I didn’t know what to respond – I felt a bit like an insensitive dick – and hours later, his words still reverberate. He wasn’t being unkind or rude, just matter-of-fact. His tone was firm; I felt his quiet resolute, rooted in self-belief.

He brought up his classmates, how they’re from everywhere across the world and under some kind of funding to be here. “One guy’s from Antarctica! Can you believe it? He said his government sponsored him because he’s the first to enter Stanford. Amazing! Then there’s a guy from Peru, who wrote to the ministers of his country – one of them is actually paying for his education. Most of them are on a government scholarship, but India has one billion people. That’s one billion lives to save; one billion mouths to feed.”

I found out later that as it is, he’s barely getting by financially in the masters program, yet he’d rather have it this way than to trouble ‘his people’, because What’s a million-dollar degree and PhD aspirations when you can barely feed your child? When access to clean water is so difficult? It doesn’t matter if it’s from Stanford, MIT, Harvard – wherever else – because my studying about seismic changes or proving that the equations work – none of that’s gonna help provide food on their tables when they desperately need them.”

It made me wonder… how differently would things play out for him, had he been born elsewhere? What if he wasn’t Indian, but American? Perhaps even Malaysian?

I thought about his words for a long time as I attempted to write them on my Facebook status in trying to drive the point home. His story needed to be told, I thought, so the lessons can be learned.

There’s rezeki (lit. reward) and then there’s opportunity. They’re similar, but he’s got me thinking and realizing, that in truth very few people realize that the fine line which differentiates the two makes a world, literally, of difference. Hours later, his words still linger. His sincerity moved me so.

I don’t know how to help him, so I extended a prayer specifically for him tonight. I think he deserves the opportunity to realize this dream of his, because when you have deep-rooted appreciation for knowledge and look at it like you would a lover – I feel ashamed that here I am, as always, the one with all the means and… a million complaints.

I pray for the best for him; God knows best, insyaAllah.

Here’s to wishing that my fellow Malaysian scholars have similar perspectives. Take it from this young man – an opportunity given really isn’t just an opportunity given. 


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