The Harvard Whisperer of Mumbai
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he holds one key to the gilded gates of Ivy League success.
By Sanjena Sathian
At the end of a college admissions season, Viral Doshi can count his successes in the mugs, pennants and cheery “welcome” posters his clients receive. His office is dotted with mementos from Cornell, Penn, Harvard, Princeton — plenty to whet the appetite of parents toting their adolescent children to him for counsel.
The sacred maps charting the route to Ivy League paths and Gothic spires are scattered around the room. Doshi’s desk sits next to a terrifying pile of paperbacks with titles like The College Handbook, and prep books for every acronym in the alphabet soup of exams and admissions: SAT, ACT, TOEFL, O-levels, A-levels.
More crucial are the papers neatly stacked in Doshi’s desk drawers. He pulls them out lovingly: summaries of a model government set up in villages by a young man in Uttar Pradesh; an exhibition a Mumbai-based teenager created to help a former Bihari maharaja display his treasures. There’s the ham radio club started in response to flooding by another student and a paper explaining the mathematics of sculpture and music. A whippersnapper in Andhra Pradesh ran the most blood drives in the world. He recites, perfunctorily, the destinies of each author: Harvard. Dartmouth. Penn. Princeton. The Guinness World Records book … and Stanford.
Going to America may be easier than making one’s way to top state-run Indian universities.
Doshi may be the most successful college counselor in India. Here in Mumbai, where he keeps one office (others and associates are in London, Dubai, New York and Singapore), the avuncular former manufacturing businessman caters to a class of cosmopolitan Indians seeking to send their kids abroad. Doshi, who refers to his work as career counseling, has been at it for 12 years, having left manufacturing in search of more meaningful work. He estimates he coaches around 150 graduating seniors each year, more than half of whom go on to an Ivy-quality school. Students start with him as young as 14, and many seek help through graduate school. His trick: those sheets of paper above. Doshi compensates for the lack of extracurricular culture in Indian schools by making his protegés full-blown liberal arts whizzes before they hit their 20s. He says he guides them to work that dovetails with their interests, inspiring in them the kind of sculpted sense of intellectual vitality that Harvard and its ilk desire. As any survivor of the college application process knows, the profile must appear high-end yet nonchalant.
After Chinese students, Indians are the second-largest group of internationals flooding U.S. campuses, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE); the country sent just over 130,000 students to America in 2014-2015. Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at IIE, says a recent spike in students from the subcontinent can be chalked up to young people arriving for advanced or professional degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Then there is the broad truth about Indians, as compared to their peers in China or Korea: Many grew up in English-medium schools (a legacy of the British colonial system), where English is the primary means of instruction. Here’s an irony: Enrolling in an American school may be easier, Doshi says, than making one’s way to top state-run Indian universities, which base admissions largely on exam scores, eliminating the opportunity for applicants to show off their softer, more qualitative side. Extracurriculars, personal essays and creative self-expression are not prized.
Doshi’s students stand apart from the larger trends Bhandari observes, as wealthy sorts who can afford a six-figure package for a liberal arts degree, undergrads who can make do with less funding than STEM-oriented grad students. Bhandari says she’s seen “a lot of growth” in these younger emigrants, albeit less than their older counterparts. She attributes their boom to the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, the expanding middle and upper classes and more plentiful options to secure student loans. (Some students, much like Chinese teens, ship to the U.S. even earlier, for high school or exchange programs.) Doshi himself, a Cornell alumnus, made his way to the U.S. in the 1970s, when American undergraduate schools were unthinkable for most. His experience was thanks in part to his father, who moved the family to New York before the kids’ college days to offer them better opportunities.
Pulkit Agarwal is a rising sophomore at Harvard and a graduate of the Doon School in North India, a prestigious boys boarding school. He’s a testament to the Doshi mythology. Chatting from Delhi, where he’s interning at a think tank for the summer, he speaks with sophistication about his sessions with “Mr. Doshi.” The counselor came recommended by a classmate at Doon, and Agarwal hired him during his junior year. His Harvard key? A research paper charting the motivations of first-time voters during the 2014 elections, later published in the World Affairs Journal. This, of course, is the golden ticket: the way Doshi moves his students beyond extracurriculars on their resumé and into the territory of mature intellectuals.
What I find most remarkable about Doshi is his calm demeanor, like that of a seasoned therapist. It must quell the anxieties of the ambitious parents who pass through his doors. (The moms are the worst, he says.) But when a young person moves beyond the penumbra of success he casts over them, their future is hardly secure. International students, especially those without a STEM degree, must fight to remain in the U.S. post-college. And at a time when immigration opposition is spiking, Bhandari notes that students may choose to go elsewhere. “It took a while to shift the needle” in the aftermath of 9/11, she says. Just imagine, if you will, what a certain candidate’s presidency would mean for these aspiring teens.