"The Stripespotter": Mayank Lahiri

Mayank is an inventor and zebra-enthusiast. He developed Stripespotter, a biological barcode scanner for zebras;, a weather app; is a part of the team behind the insights you’ll see on your Facebook page; and he knows clever hacks for things ranging from Soduku to Foursquare. Mayank lives in San Francisco, by way of both India and Oman, where he can be found behind the wheel of a red Porsche, dreaming up his next big idea.

Mayank launched himself into the fast lane by being an international student in the US for both his undergraduate degree and PhD program. He earned at Bachelors in Computer Science at Lafayette College and then earned his PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was awarded a full scholarship for both universities.

Would You Recommend Becoming an International Student?

Yes! Get out of your country and go somewhere where you are not comfortable. You meet a lot of people from all over the world and that really changes your outlook. You have friends and a network in different parts of the world.  That is a big benefit and there are very few opportunities where you can say that.  Another plus is that you have the same rights as any other student.

How Did You Decide Which University to Attend?

Picking a place was tough. The question was if I would be going away from my family I should really make it count by going to a top school. My dad and I picked out a bunch of colleges. Most schools do not give full scholarships to international students. However, one gave me a full ride so it was trial and error.

How Much Did You Know about the US University System in Advance?

Nothing, other than one could enroll as “undeclared”. I was a physics major when I first started but I also liked computer science and psychology. My physics professor told me I could design my own degree but I was worried about who would accept “my own degree”, including employers and transferring my qualification to other countries. 

Was It Important to be Fluent in English before Starting School?

Language is a big thing.  Learn the language before you go. If I did not speak English beforehand it would have been a lot harder. If you know a little bit you can progress and learn but if you have absolutely no experience it is tough to assimilate with others.  Basic communication with peers is critical as you learn a lot from your peers.  If you feel embarrassed by your lack of language skills it will prevent effective communication with your professors (even in the sciences), knowledge of plagiarism rules, and the understanding you need to complete assignments.  It really holds you back. 

Did You Know Much About American Culture Before Arriving?

I had not traveled much prior to coming to the States.  I only started to travel once they gave me a credit card in the US. The only exposure I had to college life beforehand was from movies and that is not very accurate. To actually know what college life is about would have been useful. For example, I would have known what a “wellness floor” is.

What Were the Things That Surprised You?

So many things! Many people in the US eat dinner really early. Taco Bell used to advertise a "fourth meal" which was definitely strange. I had many expectations from TV but McDonald's ads are deceptive and the roads on the East coast didn't match the big, wide Texas-style roads they always show. The sheer number of ads on the TV and radio, even more so, for cars and medications was a bit overwhelming. I found that Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show”, was fascinating with his comedic take on current events but the real news clips he would play were often horrifying.

I was also surprised that other people were amazed that I spoke good English. Despite living overseas for my formative years, I have been speaking English all my life. Perhaps the most lasting surprise was that people from all around the world do share bits of common culture. For example, I've seen Bob Marley posters hanging in the rooms of students from tens of different countries. I have also heard "No Woman, No Cry" sung in at least 20 different drunken accents. At the end of the day, finding those common threads of humanity is absolute gold.

Was it Easy to Integrate with Other Students?

The international students tended to hang out together which was very interesting as we were all from different countries.  Integrating with American students varied from person to person, some joined frats, some ended up marrying Americans, and some did not integrate at all. International students should make the effort to assimilate. Get to know a bar tender, for example. If you are going abroad you really be part of the community, try to have diverse experiences, and do not stand out as an outsider.

Did Being an International Student Affect Your Future?

I am definitely glad that I did it as I am now working at Facebook, earned my PhD, and am doing really cool things. Kids who are exposed to several cultures so early usually end up as very interesting people

© 2012 StudentRoads. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

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  • Mayank is an inventor and zebra-enthusiast. He developed Stripespotter, a biological barcode scanner for zebras, and is a part of the team behind Facebook insights. By way of India to Oman to the US, Mayank can be found behind the wheel of a red Porsche dreaming up his next big idea.


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