Hillol Tay’s

Coming to America with Three (3) Dollars and A Briefcase

As I walk down my memory lane now, I vividly remember the day (September 2, 1975), when I landed for the first time at the Hector International Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.A.  This was quite an eye opener to a village “Rakhal Boy” from the remote village of Habra in West Bengal, India.  The Fall 1975 semester at NDSU was going to start on September 8, and I decided to arrive in Fargo at least a week ahead of the classes start.  I thought this would help me to familiarize myself with the campus, professors, and buildings where the classes would be held, etc.  Back in those days, there was no internet or e-mail communication system at all.  Phone calls from India to U.S.A. were highly expensive (about 4 dollars per minute).  All communications used to be carried out by sending typed or handwritten letters back and forth.  Nowadays, search on the internet and exchange of e-mails provide so much information in the twinkling of an eye.  So you can well imagine the hurdles in coming to Fargo and settling down from halfway around the world. 

 Before I go any further, let me share a bit of the background information.  Upon arrival in Hector International Airport, I picked up a telephone directory, and started looking for any Indian professors and students in the Fargo area.  Very quickly, I found the name of Dr. K. Nageswara Rao; I called and asked him if he could pick me up from the airport.  We talked for about five (5) minutes.  I explained my situation and told him that I had come with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering from BE College (Shibpur), a Green Card and NSF Fellowship to study Environmental Engineering at NDSU. I did not have any friends or relatives there, and I had come with only three dollars and a briefcase with me.  Dr. Rao mentioned that he was a Professor in the Department of Mathematics at NDSU, and he would be glad to pick me up from the airport.  “You can stay with me till you find your own accommodation” he asserted.  I felt like I had the moon in the palm of my hands. 

 It was about 3 PM.  Dr. K.N. Rao picked me up from the airport and drove me to his home.  Coffee was ready to be served. Our conversation started with a bang.  Dr. Rao had more questions than I had anticipated.  After a little nap, it was almost dinner time.  Rice, cauliflower, lentil, sambar, fruits and ice cream filled me up well.  We shared many stories, and Dr. Rao educated me about Fargo weather, winter clothes, etc.  We went to sleep around 11:30 PM.  Next day, September 3, Monday morning, Dr. Rao dropped me off at the Department of Civil Engineering.  I had an already scheduled appointment at 10:30 AM with Dr. James L. Jorgenson, Chairman and Professor of Civil Engineering.  Dr. Jorgenson greeted me warmly and discussed course work, registration process, and so on.  Next, I met with my Advisor, Dr. Stanley L. Klemetson, Founder and Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering, followed by Dr. O. Don Richard, Prof. Ken Markve, Dr. George LaPalm, and Prof. Tom D’Errico.  My shyness went away after I met these professors and a few students of the department. 

   From September 4 to 7, 1975, Dr. Rao used to drop me off in the Memorial Union Building area, and he went to the Mathematics Department.  I used to walk around the whole campus to get to know the locations of buildings and classrooms and made friends with local and international students.  This offered me an opportunity to realize the roles of Equity, Diversity, and Global Outreach (EDGO) office at NDSU. 
 Course registration was completed on September 8, 1975, at 11:00 AM, and my classes started on September 9 at 8:30 AM.  As part of teaching assistantship, I was appointed to work with Prof. Tom D’Errico in his field surveying class.  As the days passed by, I was settling down with my own classes, and helping the students as well.  In the evenings, Dr. Rao used to take me around the off-campus NDSU neighborhood to find an apartment or a place to stay.  Around September 16, 1975, I found a small room inside the garage of Mrs. Beverly Smith on 1216 North University Drive in Fargo for lease, with a rent of 35 dollars per month.  She allowed me only to stay, without any cooking or socializing at all in her home.  Finding no other place to stay, I had to abide by the Landlady’s directives. 

Around early October 1975, winter was setting in around Fargo and the nearby cities.  In the beginning, I was so excited to see the snow flurries, but a few weeks later, I became paranoid with the winter chill, and began to learn how to cry alone.  I had no winter clothes and was not prepared for such severe cold and freezing temperature.  So I called Dr. Rao, and with him went to K-Mart to buy snow boots and a king-size bed sheet for 1 dollar under a blue-light sale.  A week later, Mrs. Smith accompanied me to a church rummage sale for buying any winter clothes.  Everything appeared to be very expensive to me (because I came with only 3 dollars), and I needed to wait for the paycheck from assistantship at NDSU.  Two days after the rummage sale, Mrs. Thelma Floyd (a close friend and neighbor of Mrs. Smith) brought in a long topcoat to Mrs. Smith’s door and gave it to her because it was not sold in the rummage sale.  Mrs. Smth gave me the coat free, and I was so happy.  Lord bless Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Floyd. 

 From September 2, 1975 till August 17, 1977, I remained busy with my graduate school and research.  Assistantship money was not enough for myself, and I needed to send money to my mother in India to support herself along with my two younger brothers.  So I continued to do all kinds of odd jobs on and off campus for any wages.  During that two-year time period, I worked in Motel 6 as a janitor, at Villa Maria Nursing Home as a dishwasher and kitchen helper, NDSU Toxicology Department to clean the test tubes in the laboratory, at NDSU Main Library under work study program, and the list goes on and on…..As I think back, out of 24 hours a day, I used to work at least 22 hours per day.  My blood pressure went down to 50 for lack of food and hard work without a rest.  I had no medical insurance, and my classmate Stanley M. Kvinge took me to his doctor for a check up.  After examining me, the doctor advised me to take complete rest for the next six months.  I could not afford it.  So I slowed down. 

On May 27, 1977, the abstract of my paper, based on my graduate thesis and analytical research, was selected/nominated by the Indiana University at South Bend for presentation (on October 6, 1977) at the 50th Annual Conference of the Water Pollution Control Federation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  I was so thrilled and my joy knew no bounds.  I told this to my mother and village friends of Habra who were equally overjoyed at the news.  Upon presentation of my paper entitled “A Preliminary Approach to the Investigation of Coal Washed Wastewater and Sludge with an Emphasis on the Variable Effects of Climatic Influence” at the WPCF Conference, I began to receive invitation letters from France, Germany, Venezuela, and from many businesses within U.S.A.  Copies of these letters have been carefully preserved inside my thesis, which is kept at the Civil Engineering Department Library of NDSU. 

 In conclusion, I like to thank the Department of Civil Engineering at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, North Dakota for providing me with the NSF Fellowship to carry out my Graduate Study in Environmental Engineering.  The NDSU Professors in Civil Engineering and other departments as well as the Fargo residents helped me in various ways (e.g. food, winter clothes, free shelters, etc.), and all such assistance is greatly appreciated.    
 In November 2011, I was invited to my alma mater by Dr. Kevin Brooks, Chairman and Professor, Department of English; Dr. Eakalak Khan, Chairman and Professor of Civil Engineering Department; Dr. Gary Smith, Dean, College of Engineering and Architecture; and Dr. Evie Myers, Vice President, Equity, Diversity and Global Outreach Office.  On this occasion, I did my own original poetry reading, arranged by Dr. Brooks of the English Department; and presented a technical seminar on “A Basic Overview of Enforcement Activities in EPA Region 6”, arranged by Dr. Khan of the Civil Engineering Department.  These presentations offered me a good networking opportunity, and I am looking forward to visiting my alma mater, NDSU, again in the future.  

“Milestone” May 2, 2024 © Copyright May 2, 2024,By Hillol Ray

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