Utkarsha Agwan – Interned at the Department of Computer Science, Stanford University, USA
I started scouting for and mailing professors in October, which is pretty late. All in all, I must have mailed over a hundred professors during the course of the application process. My prior experience: working on a DISA project on Embedded Systems in the summer after my first year and with a professor at IIT Delhi on Machine Learning in winter, might’ve helped me clinch the internship. Replies with opportunities to work with professors during the semester or the winter break rather than in the summers, often provided me with the encouragement to keep me going.
Among the professors I mailed, there was one at ETH Zürich who appeared to demonstrate a lot of interest as he personally knew one of the professors I worked with in IIT Delhi. Strangely enough, he never responded to any of my subsequent mails.
My work at Stanford on Embedded Systems initially involved two parts—assisting a PhD student with her thesis, which was eventually scrapped, and, adapting an operating system for a new platform. I learnt a new programming language, Rust, although I wouldn’t consider the embedded systems programming skills I gained as language-based. Where finances are concerned, the professor doubled the stipend he had initially promised and I did not have any net out-of-pocket expenditure. The research group I was a part of had weekly meetings where the members would present the research they were
While other members of the group would typically talk about stuff they’d been working on over the past few weeks, when it was my turn, I presented a technical paper which was 7 years old. So although I was a tad underconfident because I knew that the research wouldn’t exactly be new to them, we did end up having a discussion on the paper.
THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT:
There weren’t any academic boundaries at Stanford and I could walk in to other research groups’ meets. In fact, given my background as an undergraduate, people would often take the pains of ensuring I understood what was being spoken of.
I also realized the difference in academic curricula in terms of industry relevance—for the same courses, students at Stanford were more likely to learn about topics which could be directly applied at workplaces, compared to their counterparts in IIT. The relationship I had with my professor was also different from what I was accustomed to through my interactions in IIT Delhi—we were on a first-name basis, would regularly code together and I could approach him for the most trivial of doubts and errors.
THE SOCIAL SCENE: I lived off-campus, with a bunch of Indian students I got in touch with through a family friend. As the only undergraduate (read: kid) interning with the research group, which consisted of a cosmopolitan mix of graduate students—I would often receive a lot of advice on various matters: from coming back to Stanford as a Master’s student to places to visit in and around Palo Alto to getting a boyfriend for 8 weeks. One of the members of the group was an IIT Bombay alumnus and the well-known IITD-IITB rivalry would often surface in small tiffs and jokes.
Initially, I didn’t have people I could go out and explore things with. Although I eventually joined a bunch of undergraduates, this experience made me realize the importance of friends—you can’t do all ‘touristy’ things alone.
Halfway through the internship, I came across a bunch of code that I couldn’t properly comprehend. With the money my professor was paying me along with the fear of disappointing him foremost in my mind, I tried to make do and ended up wasting a week, at the end of which it was apparent that I hadn’t really understood what I was working with. I regret not asking more questions.
On a lighter note, I’d heard glorious tales of the frat party scene at Stan, only to find the campus next to deserted as everyone had already left for the vacations. :/
Finally being able to dye my hair: working with a professor with rainbow colored hair helped allay any fears of being judged.
A glimpse of life as an adult and independence—irrespective of how tired I was after a day’s work I’d still have to cook or look after chores like doing the laundry
Surfing: I never thought I’d be able to balance the board!
Renting a convertible and driving on an LA freeway with the top down at 150 kmph
I understood why Americans are fat.
The group used to have weekly meets with a scrumptious variety of desserts laid out on a large table. In fact, the tradition of free food is extremely commonplace in companies in the Valley as well. On the more mundane side of things…
I made a roti perfectly on my very first try.
I noticed how a lot of Indians in the Silicon Valley tend to form social ghettos by surrounding themselves only with other Indians along with being extremely homesick and pining for Indian food.
After learning more about job uncertainty in the Valley, I came to realize that most Indians were in fact, not living the famed American Dream and rather, had a perennial Damocles’ sword hanging over their heads due to the random nature of hiring and firing.