Indian students’ deaths in the US – the community wants answers?

Amarnath Ghosh, who was doing his dissertation in classical dance, was killed in St Louis in February

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The Unsettling Tragedy of Indian Students Studying Abroad

Jey Sushil, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is dejected. The recent death of his fellow student, Amarnath Ghosh, a 34-year-old classical dancer from India, has left him shaken. Local police are investigating Ghosh’s death as a homicide case.

Sushil says he found out about Ghosh’s passing through a friend in India before receiving any information from the university. “They told us after two days. Students are not very happy with the overall response. It’s like, who cares about how Indians feel?” he laments.

Ghosh was fatally shot off-campus in a city street. The university clarified that it communicates a student’s death only after law enforcement confirms the identity, a process that can take time, and with consent from the student’s next of kin. “We shared this sad news with members of our community as soon as we could and according to the wishes of Amarnath’s closest contacts,” says Julie Flory, the Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communications at Washington University in St. Louis, describing it as a “horrible tragedy.”

Amarnath Ghosh, who was doing his dissertation in classical dance, was killed in St Louis in February
Amarnath Ghosh, who was doing his dissertation in classical dance, was killed in St Louis in February

Ghosh’s case is not an isolated incident. He is among 11 Indian or Indian-origin students who have died in the US so far this year, sparking fears about personal safety within the community. The causes of death have varied, from hypothermia to suicide to shooting, but experts say there is no discernible link between these unrelated incidents.

“We avoid going out after dark. We have identified places in the city that are unsafe in the evenings. What else can we do?” Sushil asks, reflecting the concerns shared by many Indian students studying in the US.

Like Sushil, other students also complain that their universities do not report the deaths on time, and they find out about them through Indian media or from relatives back home. Mohammad Abdul Arfath, a 25-year-old student at Cleveland State University (CSE), was found dead earlier this month after going missing in March. A fellow student, who wished to remain anonymous, said they learned of Arfath’s death through a WhatsApp message from their parents, who urged them to “stay on guard.”

The desire for an American degree remains strong among Indian families, with nearly 267,000 Indians enrolled in US universities in 2022-23, a number projected to reach a million by 2030. “The desire, the draw or pull of an American degree is very strong in India and appealing to Indian families,” says Rajika Bhandari, a New York-based education expert.

However, the recent spate of student deaths has brought the issue of personal safety into sharper focus. Sangay Mishra, an associate professor at Drew University in New Jersey, says there is no “clear pattern” that connects the deaths and that “it’s important to not fall into the trap of building an overarching narrative that it’s happening because they’re Indians.” He adds, “I haven’t seen anything which suggests that these are cases of racial hostility or attacks based on race.”

Indian parents, like Meenu Awal, whose son studies at the University of Southern California, express their concerns. “It scares us whenever we hear such kind of news sitting far away in India,” Awal says, adding that she has instructed her son to “not retaliate” even in the case of a robbery, but to “just give cash or whatever, and walk away.” Neetu Marda from Jaipur city, whose daughter attends New York University, says she talks to her every day and keeps her friends’ phone numbers handy, advising her “not to go out alone with unknown people.”

Universities are aware of the psychological impact on students, with Bhandari noting that “international students are increasingly facing mental health issues which are a combination of immense financial pressure and academic pressure to keep up their level so that their visa status is not affected.” Reena Arora-Sanchez, the executive director of communications at CSU, acknowledges that “international students face unique stressors when they leave their support systems and navigate a new culture.”

To address these concerns, the Indian embassy in the US offers guidelines for students to contact them and hosts regular online and in-person open house sessions. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, the India Club president, Pratham Mehta, says they’ve reached out to the institute’s “large Indian student population.” Additionally, CSU provides an app linking students to the university’s police department and offers a free safety escort service for campus and nearby student housing.

Despite the uncertainties, the US remains a sought-after destination for Indian students. Swaraj Jain from Jaipur is heading to New York University in August, brimming with excitement but also a clear understanding of the challenges ahead. “Everyone talks about gun violence and crime. I will have to be careful,” he says.

American universities are in a tough position, acknowledging the “very real concerns around personal safety” while also capitalizing on the “huge and growing appetite among Indian students to study abroad,” as Bhandari puts it. The recent tragedies have brought this issue to the forefront, and universities, along with the broader community, must work to ensure the safety and well-being of these students.

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