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STANFORD -- Geetika Tandon will never forget the Asian American orientation dinner she attended as a Stanford University freshman.

It was 1987, and "a couple of us U.S.-born Indians bounded over to the dinner, assuming that we were Asian," she wrote later in the Stanford Daily.

"We watched and applauded the Japanese Dragon dancers, and appreciated the Hawaiian Club hula dancers, and watched and waited to identify with the others. . . . Twenty or so 'Asian brands' later, we were still waiting to identify."

Today, the influence of Indian Americans in this country is much more apparent.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there are now more than a million Americans of Indian descent, and their children are entering the ranks of American undergraduates in a big way.

Rutgers University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California-Los Angeles all have sizable Indian American populations. At Stanford, Indian American students (not foreign born) now make up about 5 percent of the undergraduate student body - about a fifth of the Asian American undergrads on campus.

Among those with roots in the subcontinent are Stanford senior Laxmi Poruri, the No. 1-ranked women's collegiate tennis player in the country; Stanford Daily editor-in-chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran; and three of Stanford's last 15 Rhodes scholars.

"There weren't that many Indian Americans at my high school [in Moraga, Calif.], but of the three students that came to Stanford, two were Indian American," said Chandrasekaran, a senior majoring in political science.

"I think the number of Indian American students here is really rising year by year," he said. "It's a generation coming of age."

Like many Indian Americans, Chandrasekaran's parents immigrated to the United States to continue their educations - part of a wave that followed passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.

Before the mid-1960s, most Indians who wanted to study overseas went to British universities. But the liberalized U.S. immigration law, coupled with the reputation of American graduate schools in the sciences and engineering, convinced thousands of India's finest students to come to the United States instead, often with spouses in tow.

For many of them, the move has paid off handsomely. While class differentiation does exist in the community - as it does in every group - the 1990 Census reported that Indian Americans had the highest median income, per capita, of any ethnic group in the United States.

"I think when you come from a country that's not that rich, you really want to work hard," said Prakash Chandra, president of the Silicon Valley Indian Professional Association, who went to Pennsylvania State University and now works at an electronics firm in Santa Clara, Calif.

One of the reasons many Indian parents put so much emphasis on their children's education, he said, "is because education gave them such an edge in the United States."

Ironically, many young Indian Americans who grew up as All-American kids in suburbia are finding that education also provides them with strengthened links to their Indian heritage.

Sanskriti, a club of Stanford students with roots in the Indian subcontinent, has about 100 listed members in its second year, making it one of the fastest growing ethnic student organizations on campus.

Each spring, the group holds a cultural night, or Mela, featuring Indian classical and folk dancing, singing, student comedy and a fashion show. Last year, it drew approximately 1,000 audience members over two nights, with proceeds going toward literacy projects in India.

Programs this fall included a celebration of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, which benefited the Red Cross' Indian earthquake-relief fund; a bhangra dance party (Indian dance fused with modern dance music); and a discussion series on community issues.

One such discussion last year focused on the subject of dating and marriage - often a hot point of contention between U.S.- born students and their Indian-born parents, who grew up with a much more strictly arranged system of courtship.

"There's a lot of adjusting that we're doing on our own here, because we're pioneers into a new culture," said Gita Sinha, a junior majoring in biological sciences, who is an officer of the group.

"That's why we try to invite professors and speakers: to get a better perspective on things."

Students also are showing a heightened interest in formal courses on India. Enrollment in Stanford history Professor Mark Mancall's course on modern Indian history and culture nearly tripled in its first three years, from 14 in winter quarter 1990 to 38 in 1993.

"We plan to really show the administration that we do definitely hear a demand for south Asia-focused courses, and we want to show the administration that there is student support for it," said senior Rani Deshpande, Sanskriti co-chair.

Deshpande said she has talked with Mancall about the possibility of someday launching a south Asia studies degree program at Stanford, similar to that offered at the University of California-Berkeley.

A summer study program in India also is in the very early stages of discussion, according to Andrew Lisac, assistant dean of summer session and continuing studies.

-tmj/Indian students-


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