by Sid Mittra, PhD, CFP®, is emeritus professor of finance at Oakland University. He is a past member of the CFP Board. Mittra is in several prestigious listings, includingInternationalAuthors’ Who’s Who,American Men of Science, andWho’s Who in Finance and Industry.
The place was Bengal Lodge near Crawford Market in Bombay (now Mumbai). The day was Friday, August 10, 1951. I had just secured a permanent position with the prestigious Reserve Bank, and was going to live in a city with an enviable title of London of India. In essence, I was all set for living a long, carefree life. Naturally, such a turn of events called for a gala celebration. I sat there on a chair facing the partially-blocked window, trying the feel that excitement. Strangely, I failed miserably.
The more I thought about it, the bleaker my future looked. I was already 21 years old. The Bank job I lined up carried a paltry monthly salary of Rs. 225, of which Rs. 140 was eaten up by board and lodging costs. On top of that, my supervisor was no more assuring. He assured me that I could retire as a Research Officer, barely two grades above my clerical position. The little money I had left after paying lodging costs did not allow me to establish a decent social life. And the thought of starting a family life seemed more like a nightmare than a dream. The more I thought about my glorious future, the more distraught I felt. That evening I literally sunk into my chair with utter disappointment and passed out.
I don’t know how long I was sitting there, in that position. Suddenly I woke up and recalled the ten words philosophy my mother had drilled into me: IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME. That cheered me up, and I decided to find a way to go to America and make it big. It was all a pipe dream at that time, of course, but was still a sweet dream.
The next day I visited the U.S.I.S. (United States Information Services). I got thoroughly confused looking through the complicated applications for receiving financial assistance, and the strange university names further shook me up. To make matters worse, the attending clerk provided no help, I decided to study the application process on my own before applying for a fellowship grant. Unfortunately, given my job commitments which conflicted with the USIS office hours, it took me almost a year before I could feel comfortable to proceed with the grant application process.
So, in 1953, I limited my mailing costs by applying only to four universities for fellowship grants and promptly received four rejections. Next year, I doubled my efforts by applying to eight universities and again received eight rejections. In 1955, I doubled the applications to 16 (and decided to limit future applications to 16), and the result was no different from previous outcomes.
I continued this practice year after year, undeterred and unhinged. Then one day in 1957, along with 15 rejections I also received one grant offer from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Shaking uncontrollably, I collapsed on my chair with excitement and almost passed out.
Preparation for U.S. was no less traumatic. Because of the Exchange Control restrictions, I only had $58 in my pocket when I left India for good. Next, to slash travel costs, I devised a complex plan that involved traveling by ship, train, bus and plane. I sailed for the U.S. on August 10, 1957.
Arriving in Gainesville, Florida on September 6, 1957 was supposed to be an end to all of my worries. That turned out to be cruel hoax. Problems cropped up at every imaginable place and I found it impossible to handle them. But since I had burned all my bridges behind me, I did whatever it took to survive.
To begin with, I had extreme difficulty in handling my graduate studies in Economics. Although I had a Master’s degree in Commerce it never prepared me for what I was facing. So I slept only for four hours a day, studying non-stop during waking hours. Then there was the crazy food problem.
Their normal dinner time was 5 p.m. I couldn’t eat at 5 and was ravenous at 8. The method of testing, which mostly consisted of multiple choice questions, also created a major challenge because I was familiar only with essay-type. Finally, my loneliness took a heavy toll on my mental state, and I could never comfortably handle the cards I was dealt with.
Let me fast forward to the 1958 winter semester January through April). One day my fellowship director, Dr. Donovan, called me to his office. He congratulated me for earning excellent grades and assured me of the continuation of my fellowship grant for the following year. Then he casually asked me how I was going to manage the costs of the spring and summer months. I replied nonchalantly that I was planning to continue my course work during those months expecting my fellowship grant to take care of the associated costs. It was at that point that Dr. Donovan dropped a bombshell. He cautioned me that my scholarship did not cover spring and summer months; besides, the IRS rules didn’t allow me to work outside the university. And while I was legally permitted to work on campus, he pointed out that all campus jobs had been filled months earlier,
I returned home, delirious, and distraught.
That night, I could not sleep a wink. All I could do was to pray for a miracle to happen. A miracle indeed did take place, although it was much too twisted to provide any comfort.
The next morning Dr. Donavan called to inform me that he did succeed in finding for me a campus job. But he warned that the job might be unacceptable. Obviously, I accepted that offer on the spot.
Well, guess what? This spooky job involved my working at the Agricultural Experimentation Station from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. without a break. The job entailed my carrying a loaded gun and shooting down the squirrels that attempted to destroy the growing citrus fruits. I was petrified, especially since I had never even touched a gun, let alone use it to kill someone. But I convinced myself that I could perform my task by scaring the squirrels by pointing an unloaded gun at them.
Unfortunately, the squirrels did not oblige, and after a week I lost my job. Fortunately, my roommate Marshall Jackson volunteered to kill the rodents on a regular basis. That allowed me to complete my summer assignment with grace, earning a whopping 50 cents hourly pay, or if you like, $8.50 per day for putting in 17-hour days.
The end of this real life drama is as spectacular as is its beginning. This amazing experience taught me a valuable lesson that has changed my life forever.
“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible,
then they seem improbable,
and then, when we summon the will,
they soon become inevitable.”