Spotlight on Success: Gauthami Vijayakumar
Monday | February 26, 2018 | by Kelly Acheson
Gauthami Vijayakumar is an instructional designer from India working in New York City. After receiving a WES Course-by-Course credential evaluation, she left India to pursue a master’s degree in instructional design at New York University (NYU). WES Advisor recently caught up with Gauthami to learn about her journey from completing her master’s degree to finding a job as an instructional designer in New York City.
Keep reading to discover Gauathami’s story and to see her advice for international students looking to come to the U.S. for graduate studies.
WES Advisor: Can you describe your education in India and why you decided to complete a master’s degree in instructional design in the U.S.?
Gauthami: I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electronic media from a private university. It was a three-year art’s degree in media studies, but my interests were more in writing and design than in media production.
Although I was not entirely sure what I wanted to do after graduating from college, I knew I wanted to get into copywriting. During college, I completed a three-month copywriting internship at the Discovery Channel in India. The Discovery Channel wanted their writing to have an instructional or educational spin to it, and I found that I enjoyed doing that.
At my first job as an instructional designer in India, I had to write instructional content. In this job, I worked with U.S. universities and spoke with instructional design professors at U.S. universities. It was in this job where I first heard about instructional design master’s programs.
After two years at my first job out of college, I felt confident that instructional design was the career option I wanted to pursue. I started researching universities and found that NYU had a really great program. It was practical, hands-on, and had lots of internship opportunities. I thought it would be a good fit for me. I know that a lot of schools offer instructional design now, but eight years ago only a handful of universities offered the program, so the master’s program at NYU seemed like the natural fit for me.
Can you describe the credential evaluation process and why you chose WES for your credential evaluation?
With a three-year bachelor’s degree under my belt, I knew that I could do a master’s program in the UK, but I didn’t know if I could pursue one in the U.S. But my heart was set on studying a master’s degree in the U.S.
I started writing to university admissions offices in the U.S., and sometimes even to professors, letting them know that I had a three-year bachelor’s degree, but also that I had completed extra coursework and had done a couple of internships, to see if they would consider my application. An admissions officer at NYU responded to me saying that if I had taken the GRE, I could look into a WES credential evaluation. He sent me a link to the WES website and recommended that I get my credentials evaluated. He told me that if a credential evaluation company determined that my Indian academic credentials were equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s degree, I could apply to the NYU master’s program.
I chose WES for my credential evaluation and didn’t look around for other credential evaluation companies because I knew that I wanted to go to NYU. I completed the WES credential evaluation process in fall 2009 and started my master’s at NYU in fall 2010.
What did you find challenging about the credential evaluation process?
Everything in India tends to be paper-based and universities can be disorganized. The hardest part was going back to my university and getting them to send my transcripts to the U.S. in a timely manner.
Would you recommend WES?
Yes, the process went smoothly, the cost for my evaluation was reasonable, and I got my credential evaluation results quickly.
What would you tell other Indian students about the credential evaluation process?
Indian students coming to the U.S. for a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduate degree already have a four-year bachelor’s degree, so the application process is fairly easy. However, all other Indian bachelor’s degrees are three-year programs, like my bachelor’s degree in the arts.
Many Indian students with a bachelor’s degree in the arts assume that they have to pursue a graduate degree in Australia or the UK because it is almost a given that you cannot go to the U.S. with a three-year degree. But this isn’t true. If you have a three-year Indian bachelor’s degree, you can pursue a U.S. graduate degree by getting a credential evaluation. I was almost ready to give up on a U.S. education until I found out about WES credential evaluations.
What did you find the most challenging about the U.S. college application process?
Writing the statement of purpose that needs to go along with your application was the most challenging part. Because I did not complete a bachelor’s degree in the U.S., I had never written a college essay before. Understanding what a college admissions office was looking for in a college essay and writing at that level was a challenge. Communicating who you are as a person and why you want to get admitted to the program was a completely new experience for me.
The U.S. college application process felt completely different from the Indian application process. Culturally, in India, the application process is all about your grades and test scores. In the U.S., the admissions office was more interested in my work samples and work experience, as well as how I would complement my other classmates and why I wanted to do a master’s in instructional design.
What are your tips for international students confronting the U.S. college application process for the first time?
In general, there is more of an emphasis on who you are as a person in the U.S. college application process. Your college admissions essay or statement of purpose needs to track your fit for the program. It is not as simple as just listing accomplishments—you have to talk about yourself, and ensure that your character and persona are carried across in your writing.
How has the choice to study in the U.S. impacted your life?
It has been great so far. When I moved to the U.S., I did not know if I wanted to settle down here. I was thinking about finishing grad school and then getting a year or two of work experience in the U.S. for the exposure and then going back home. Although my sister is here in the U.S. and I met my now husband in the U.S., my parents and all my family still live in India.
It worked out for me career-wise to stay here. I think it was a really good decision for me to move to the U.S. because the work I do is a lot more challenging and it is a different kind of exposure. I know that even 10 years from now, regardless of whether I continue to stay here or move back to India, I would be really grateful for this work experience and exposure here in the U.S.
How has your experience in the U.S. been transformative?
Being an international student and having a degree in non-engineering has been a bit different because your Optional Practical Training (OPT) is much shorter. You do not have a time extension and therefore have less time to figure out a job. But the great thing about NYU was that they had a very solid internship program. I was able to complete almost three internships before graduating and understood how the hiring and recruitment processes work. I knew all about having my portfolio ready and how to show my work samples.
During my last semester at NYU, I aggressively applied to jobs to ensure that I would have a job upon graduation. I found that it is more challenging for immigrants with non-engineering degrees to find jobs in the U.S. because you are constantly evaluated against applicants who do not need visa sponsorship. The topic always came up in the hiring process and I lost out on a lot of job opportunities because I needed sponsorship (and many companies were not willing to sponsor visas for non-engineers). Jumping through the visa sponsorship hoop has not been easy.
What advice would you give prospective international students looking to study abroad in the U.S. who might be hesitant about taking that first step?
- Do not only look at the prestige of the university, but rather investigate the program itself. In India, culturally, university ranking is very important. The program quality and the professors don’t matter as much as overall university ranking. I tell people to pick the program, not the university in the U.S. An Ivy League school may not have a strong program in what you want to study.
- Do not think too much about career opportunities after graduation. I worried about that, too. I worried whether I would get a job after graduating. Whatever happens, a master’s degree is worth it. If you planned right, everything will fit into place. Don’t think too far into the future, but rather look at the quality of your master’s program and make sure it will take you a step closer to what you want to do.
- Start the application process early. The application process in the U.S. is very organized when compared to India and people are always willing to help you, but you shouldn’t underestimate the application process requirements.
- Take the plunge! No one can tell you whether investing so much of your money into a master’s degree is worth it. You have to make that decision, and sometimes it is just about taking that risk.