Alumna matches Indian students with U.S. universities, worries about visas

While Purdue expects to continue in-person classes this fall, many of its international students may still be at home, taking classes online, thanks to a huge backlog of visa requests and shuttered consulates. Compounding the challenge for those in places such as India, where COVID cases spiked this spring, the U.S. this month temporarily closed its borders to everyone.

Purdue graduate Madhavi Desai, of Mumbai, sees these students’ challenges up close. She is the founder and CEO of Madhavi Desai Consulting. Her staff of 27 women assist about 800-900 students a year with their hopes to study abroad, from choosing the university that best fits their goals to navigating the application process.

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Madhavi Desai

She fears that unless something changes, new and returning international students won’t be allowed in the United States in time for the start of classes in August. They are now being told not to expect their visas until November. If that happens, most of their fall semester will be online. Besides missing face-to-face interaction, these students also will have their days and nights flipped. Because of the time difference, they will be zooming their classes at midnight and beyond when their families are long asleep.

Last fall, 20 percent of Purdue’s international students were from India. Of those 1,719 students, more than a quarter only took classes online.

Desai applauds efforts by many universities that are urging U.S. consulates to process applications faster and give priority to student visas. She says Purdue also has made “an amazing difference” by freezing tuition since 2013. Set to continue through 2022-23, this has offset somewhat the growing disparity in purchasing power between India and the United States. For every $1 increase in tuition here, it feels like four times that for Indian students.

Desai’s American experience started as a high school student in Sierra Vista, Ariz., just north of the Mexican border, thanks to a Rotary scholarship and Rotarians who took her into their homes. In one year there she learned U.S. government and history—a piece of cake compared to the 3,000 years of India’s history—and earned her diploma. After earning her undergraduate degree in India, she returned to America in 1987 for graduate school in Purdue’s Department of Sociology, working with Professors JoAnn Miller and Robert Perrucci. There wasn’t much time for extracurriculars, but always the extravert, she lent her energy to exposing our community to the colorful tapestry of India, staging a free fashion show at St. Thomas Aquinas Church. She was honored to have her master’s thesis, based on what is now Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc. in Lafayette, published in a textbook, “ Political Recruitment of Industry.”

Desai and her husband, Jay, both earned their master’s at Purdue, she in sociology in 1989 and he in molecular biology the year before. She returned home within a year after graduation and married Jay, who by then had completed his MBA at Willamette University and taken a job at Andersen Consulting in Mumbai. Soon they both started their own consulting businesses, she helping students reach their study abroad dreams and he advising international medical and pharmaceutical companies on strategic growth.

Looking back, she says, in some ways, her career chose her. When she set off for Purdue, she had in mind a career in advertising or marketing. But then during Thanksgiving break, she visited her brother in Houston. He had lined up seven families of relatives and friends who wanted her advice on getting their students into the right college. She was glad to help.

“Before I could decide on my career, the universe decided for me,” she said.

Thirty-one years later, 27,691 young people have benefited.

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