When Pooja Mahajan was still in her 20s, she took a big risk and applied for a loan of US$30,000 to get a degree at a US university.
It was a small price the Indian native thought she had to pay for a chance at the American Dream.
Mahajan planned to make the most of her shot at gaining a spot in the American middle class — where with hard work, one can get a steady job, a home, a car — and utimately, a better life.
She was certainly not expecting to wrestle with the idea of “how not to get fired from your job” after getting fired from her first role as an engineering associate.
“My American Dream was shattered in the first week at my new job,” the Clemson University graduate shared in a TEDxGreenville talk titled, “Living the American Dream.”
“Despite working long hours, I was yelled at for leaving work early. I was mocked for being a woman in a man’s world. I was often reminded why I was given this job.”
She adds: “On one occasion, I worked until midnight to meet a project deadline. The following morning, at a team meeting, my boss threw the project file [screaming], ‘Pooja, if you worked on this piece of shoot until midnight, then shame on you for being an engineer.'”
Only when things looked blurry did Mahajan realise she had tears in her eyes.
This wasn’t what the Indian environmental engineering graduate expected when she first came to the US in 2010 — a far cry from the American dream she had heard of as a student in Pune.
Life in Pune, India
The term “American dream” was coined in a best-selling book in 1931 titled “Epic of America.”
It was the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, could attain their version of success in a society where upward mobility was possible for everyone.
“It also translates into, you know, sort of the materialistic gains, like, having a home, a good salary, and being able to provide for your family irrespective of your religion, colour, or nationality,” she explains in an interview with Study International.
Pune, India’s ninth most populous city and Mahajan’s hometown, did not offer these opportunities.
While young Mahajan was always interested in maths and science, she chose to join the Bachelor of Engineering (Civil Engineering) at Savitribai Phule Pune University as she thought it would increase her chances of going abroad.
“In the first year, you get exposed to all the fields. At the time, the obvious and most popular choice amongst my peers was computer engineering. I thought I would specialise in that after my first year,” she says.
“But I found that I didn’t really enjoy programming in my first year and I really liked civil engineering, specifically with all things related to water conservation, climate change, and sustainability.”
With a country having 18% of the world’s population and only a mere 4% of its water sources, India is among the most water-stressed globally.
Pair that with the fact that it was uncommon for her peers to pursue civil engineering, and Mahajan took it as a personal challenge to break those stereotypes while contributing to a greater cause.
Tackling the water crisis in India
In her final year, the civil engineering student took part in various projects.
The beauty of this field is its broad scope, covering areas such as transportation, water, environmental engineering, structural engineering, and more.
“For me, it was always everything to do with the global water crisis,” she shares.
“At that time, I remember there were talks about a Third World War that was going to happen due to water scarcity across the globe. I wanted to be one of those people who solved all these water challenges, especially in India.”
Mahajan doubled down on learning about all things related to water treatment and conversation, so much so that she based her final year project on this topic.
Upon graduation, she even interned at Aquaplus Disaster Management, which specialised in making affordable, reliable, and responsive water solutions for any organisation during emergencies.
“I was working on developing this portable water treatment unit that can be shipped or you can ship it on a plane to disaster-affected areas to be deployed there,” she says.
“It was more mechanical and less electrical, so you could quickly treat water and provide clean water to people affected by disasters.”
Moving to the US
Midway through her civil engineering degree, Mahajan explored the idea of studying abroad when she saw her peers starting their plans to do the same.
She also saw some of her seniors landing jobs abroad after graduating from their foreign universities.
The timing, however, wasn’t great. India was hit by a recession in 2009, when Mahajan graduated with her bachelor’s degree.
“Luckily, I saw it coming and had already started researching foreign universities while applying for jobs in India,” she says.
“I did have a job offer at the time, but as soon as the recession hit, which was when I graduated, they rescinded my offer. They did that for everyone who already had an offer with the company.”
Mahajan saw this as a sign for her to take the plunge to study abroad.
Given her interest in civil engineering and the water crisis, she sought a master’s in environmental engineering, which led her to Clemson University.
“Clemson University had a dedicated environmental engineering course, as well as two departments focused specifically on civil engineering and environmental engineering respectively. They had an amazing research facility. The campus was beautiful,” Mahajan recalls.
“Clemson is also a university town, which meant it was not as expensive as [compared to] living in some cities.”
It’s a choice she does not regret making — this was where she would meet her future husband too.
‘It took 15 months, hundreds of interviews, and innumerable tears to find a job after I graduated from Clemson.’
While Mahajan loved being an international student, she did face challenges. Visa troubles made her feel uncertain about her time and future in the US.
“As an international student, you are on a visa. But you can imagine that someone living in that country for their entire life, they probably don’t think or care about visas,” she says.
“A lot of times, you know, the people recruiting here are either not aware of the challenges that come with the visa or the cost that comes with visa sponsorship. There’s also a lottery system for [work] visas in the US, so there’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with it — and that uncertainty is always looming.”
Despite being in the US for about 13 to 14 years now, the Clemson University graduate continues to feel like an “outsider” as she continues to be on a work visa.
As an international graduate, it took 15 months, hundreds of interviews, and innumerable tears for Mahajan to find a job while on Optional Practical Training (OPT) — all because she wasn’t a US citizen.
OPT grants international students who are studying or have graduated from US universities and colleges a chance to remain in their F-1 student status and work for a US employer in their field of study.
Students in any field can secure OPT for up to 12 months, while those with a STEM (short for science, technology, engineering or math) can get a STEM extension for up to 36 months.
“After completing my studies on my student visa, I now needed an employment visa to be able to work in the US. This visa needed to be sponsored by the company hiring me,” Mahajan shared in her TED talk.
“After the economic crisis, many companies adopted a ‘no work visa’ policy.”
When she did find a job after a year of cold calls, interviews, and unsolicited job applications, it was in a different city.
“The sad part was we just got married in India. As soon as I returned to the US, I never got to live with my husband,” she says.
Worse, the company had an office in a city that was near her husband, but she wasn’t allowed to transfer there.
As a small company with about 100 employees, there was also no clear protocol for visa sponsorship.
Her employers only found that they needed to sponsor her visa after she passed her probation.
How to get fired from your job and thrive
Eventually, not being able to spend quality time with her husband took a toll on Mahajan.
“At one point, I tried driving up and down [from work] every day. I started at five in the morning and reached the office by around 7.30 a.m., depending on traffic,” says Mahajan as she reflects on why she got fired from her job.
“I would then have to leave around 4.35 p.m. to get home at the same time, which didn’t necessarily gel well with the company I was working for.
Mahajan did not foresee that she would get fired from her job. Her team loved her, and she even managed to get promoted to an engineering associate.
She got the chance to dabble in all kinds of water-related civil engineering projects too.
But her firing was enough to force Mahajan to rethink her idea of the American dream. She was no longer letting her circumstances get the better of her — and it worked.
“Moving forward, there were certain priorities that I laid out for myself. I wasn’t just going to accept any job just because I had to. It needed to be a good cultural fit,” she shares.
At this point, Mahajan had already converted to a dependent visa on her husband’s visa.
It wasn’t long before Mahajan started a new role at infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, thanks to her connection with an AECOM Branch Manager with whom she had kept in contact since her time at Clemson University.
Even though they didn’t have a job at a branch near her, AECOM created a new position for her. Mahajan applied and got the role.
The Indian environmental engineering graduate stayed with the company for close to seven years.
As a multinational infrastructure consulting firm, they had a strong immigration team that covered all of Mahajan’s concerns with visa sponsorship, allowing her to focus on building her career.
“Three years since, I stand before you, sharing my journey. Today, I’m leading multiple projects at my new job. I even got transferred to the company’s world headquarters in California with a new visa and I’m running the house singlehandedly while my husband completes his graduate degree,” Mahajan shares in the 2019 Ted Talk.
Mahajan now works as a Product Manager with Stantec, where she is part of a team that develops digital products that tackle climate change, such as flood and landslide predictions.
Having lived in the US for over a decade, how would Mahajan define her American Dream today?
“In my evolving perspective, the American Dream transforms into a meaningful journey, granting me the freedom to shape my path, find fulfilment, and take charge of my happiness,” she says.
“For international students with aspirations to study in the US, navigating the American Dream involves a multifaceted approach. Understanding the intricacies of the visa and immigration processes is foundational. However, the journey goes beyond paperwork.”