Montana State University

MSU graduate caps improbable journey from India to Bozeman

May 16, 2013 -- MSU News Service

Recent Montana State University graduate Jyoti Sharma, 22, returned to Bozeman this month to celebrate her bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering with her parents, who flew to the United States for the occasion. Sharma recounted how a chance meeting in her father's taxi propelled her from India to MSU. (MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta).Jyoti Sharma, a recent graduate from Montana State University with a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering, landed a job in her field at Glanbia Foods in Twin Falls, Idaho. After the generosity of an American family enabled her to come the U.S. to attend MSU, Sharma is now helping pay for one of her brothers to attend college in her native India. (MSU photo by Sepp Jannotta).

Recent Montana State University graduate Jyoti Sharma, 22, returned to Bozeman this month to celebrate her bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering with her parents, who flew to the United States for the occasion. Sharma recounted how a chance meeting in her father's taxi propelled her from India to MSU. (MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – As she recounted the unlikely story of how a chance meeting in her father’s taxi propelled her from India to Montana State University, Jyoti Sharma kept returning to a simple point – she could not have done it alone.

Sharma, 22, who now works as an industrial engineer for Glanbia Foods, Inc., in Twin Falls, Idaho, returned to Bozeman this month to celebrate her bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering with her parents, who flew to the United States for the occasion.

Her parents, who had never been outside of India before and speak little English, were high on the list of those Sharma wanted to thank.

“Before I came to MSU, I’d never set foot outside my house without my father accompanying me,” said Sharma, who arrived in Bozeman in 2008 with limited abilities in English. “But my parents just took this leap of faith and said, ‘Okay, go and try this, go and live your life.’”

It was a leap that involved allowing their first-born to shed the traditional role for Indian women in their village outside sprawling New Delhi. It invited whispers among neighbors that her father, Ashok Sharma, had sold her into a foreign marriage. Mostly, Sharma said her leaving her family behind demanded her parents have the courage to let her venture into a world they knew almost nothing about.

It is typical for girls in Sharma's village to see their educations ended prior to completing high school by the still-common institution of arranged marriage. There was little hope for a professional outlet for Sharma, a star student with a passion for literature and dreams of being an astronaut.

But that changed when an American couple from Seattle requested a taxi from the concierge at their hotel in New Delhi.

Ashok Sharma was one of 52 drivers assigned to the hotel on that day in 2001 when Frank and Heather Minton landed in his taxicab.

After a day of touring around New Delhi in Ashok’s taxi, the Mintons hired him to drive them on a tour of India’s Golden Triangle, a three-day trip that takes in the Taj Mahal in Agra and the city of Jaipur.

When they returned to New Delhi, a friendship had taken root. Despite difficulty communicating in English, Ashok had won the Mintons' hearts.

“He talked a lot about his children,” Frank Minton said. “It was apparent he was very fond of them, that they were his life. And in particular he talked quite a lot about his daughter, Jyoti, saying how bright she was.”

Frank Minton, a consultant who helps nonprofits arrange planned giving and philanthropic annuities, said Ashok told them he was a poor man, who didn’t have the resources to help his children improve their lot.

At the close of their Golden Triangle tour, the Mintons gave their Indian driver and new friend an outsized tip.

It might have ended there; however, Ashok invited the Mintons to visit his village to meet his wife, Anita, daughter Jyoti, and sons Deepak and Sachin. Frank and Heather Minton arranged a second trip to India to take him up on the offer.

Despite not having a table or chairs, or even a real kitchen, Anita cooked and the group shared a meal in the modest home that also housed Ashok’s brother and his family. The language barrier – the Sharma family spoke Hindi and very little English – proved no impediment to a growing friendship.

From there, Frank and Heather determined to help Ashok Sharma and his family.

In trying to explain their extraordinary generosity, Frank Minton points to a famous Jewish proverb: “He who saves one person, saves the world entire.”

Their support came in various forms. Frank and Heather returned to India and traveled with the Sharma family. They helped enroll the children in a nearby English-speaking school. They helped Ashok start a store and buy a home. They helped arrange and fund tuition for the Sharma brothers to attend college in India.

For Jyoti, Frank and Heather’s assistance was transformative. They helped arrange for her to apply to MSU, where Frank’s children, Gretchen and Tim, are professors. Beyond the scholarship aid Jyoti earned, they helped pay her expenses during her studies at MSU.

Jyoti said the transition was not easy, in part because she arrived overly confident in her scholarly abilities, and in part because the cultural shift was confounding on multiple fronts.

The social scene was confusing for a young woman who was intent on maintaining a lifestyle that would not trouble her parents and was not entirely at odds with her native culture. The academic approach was different. And if that wasn’t enough, Jyoti was adjusting while juggling her studies and social life alongside three jobs.

At one point, Jyoti said, she was close to getting failing grades. But she persevered.

Jyoti said professors offered their personal time to help her when she ran into trouble on an assignment. Her adopted American family in Bozeman, most notably Gretchen Minton, MSU professor of English, and her husband, Kevin Brustuen, MSU’s coordinator for faculty-led programs abroad, made her welcome in their lives and offered much-needed encouragement when she felt overwhelmed.

A decidedly international group of fellow students became her social world. Through it all, even from half a world away, her family kept her grounded. Jyoti said she often called home twice a day.

There was additional financial help from friends of the Frank and Heather Minton – Hal and Inge Marcus, Andre and Molly Donikian, Terry and Karen Simmons, and Marilla and Skip Satterwhite – who variously helped Jyoti with education expenses and her transition to Twin Falls.

When she reflects on her journey, Jyoti said she knows her parents ultimately made it possible to pursue a bold new path while helping her remain connected to her culture. Jyoti added that now, in the village, there are no more whispers about mail-order marriages. The Sharma home is known as the home of the father of Jyoti.

Jyoti, having earned her degree and secured an excellent job in her field, said there is no way to say enough about the help that made it all possible. In particular she points to Frank and Heather Minton, whom Jyoti said came to her family as from a fairy tale.

“It never would have happened if not for them,” Jyoti said. “I was a girl who loved school and was a good student, but who didn’t think she’d ever graduate high school. Now I’m working as an industrial engineer. It shows dreams can come true.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371 or seppjannotta@montana.edu