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Global Columbus: Niraj Desai

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Niraj Desai, pictured Nov. 9, 2012, at Cummins Fuel Systems for Global Columbus feature.
Niraj Desai, pictured Nov. 9, 2012, at Cummins Fuel Systems for Global Columbus feature.

Date of birth: Nov. 23, 1984.

Place of birth: Mumbai, India.

Came to the U.S.: August 2006 to go to school.

Job title: Senior control systems engineer at Cummins Inc.

Duties: Develop software for lower displacement engines for industrial and agricultural uses, including small construction equipment such as excavators or bulldozers.

Education: Master’s in controls engineering from IUPUI. Bachelor’s in electronics from Mumbai University.

Family: Wife, Neha Badani, who has an MBA from the University of Cincinnati and works in the same building at Cummins, the General Office Building in the Fuel Systems Plant.

Hobbies: Photography, cycling and running on the People Trails, reading spy thrillers and biographies and organizing something for the Indian Association of Columbus.

Q: When you came to the U.S., what did you notice immediately as different?

A: Everything was so clean here and so organized and so quiet. Growing up in Mumbai, India, I watched a lot of American movies, but a lot of them take place in big cities, such as New York City, so when I came here and didn’t see a lot of tall buildings, I wondered where I had landed. I also noticed that people are very friendly, and that when they walk past you, they look at you and smile. In Mumbai, there are a hundred people walking past you every second, so they don’t have time to look at you and smile. Nonetheless I felt a little lonely when I first moved here because I had lived in the same place all my life. But when I got to know people I really started enjoying it here.

Q: How is education in the U.S. different from your school in Mumbai?

A: I saw a lot more practical work included in the curriculum here. It tended to be more theoretical in Mumbai — though that could have been because that was for a bachelor’s degree. Here, I really loved that I got to work on projects and implement what I learned. Students here also get a lot more personal attention because the student to teacher ratio was about 20 to 25, about half of what it was in Mumbai.

Q: How have you adjusted culturally?

A: It’s been a gradual transition. For example, when I came here I didn’t know anything about Thanksgiving. It was just a long weekend to me. But as my wife and I learned more about it, we began participating. We’re vegetarians, so we don’t eat turkey, but we eat the sweet potatoes. At Halloween, we give out candy, but we don’t dress up. It’s around the same time as our Diwali festival, and I’m always busy with that.

Q: What surprised you when you came to the U.S.?

A: The cultural and political openness. India is a little more conservative about criticizing a political party or a religion. You have to be more sensitive in India. There are some things you don’t say in public because people frown upon it. That was a big change. Here there’s a lot of stress on freedom of speech.

Q: How often do you go back to India, and what do you miss most?

A: We try to go back every other year to visit parents, grandparents and other family members, but it’s been three years now. I miss sitting at the beach, looking out aimlessly and just kind of relaxing and reflecting. I also miss the street food and that everything was walkable. On the other hand, in Mumbai I had to travel 45 minutes to get home, where as in Columbus I live a couple of miles from my office and can have lunch at home. You go from one type of convenience to another.

Q: What advice do you have for internationals who are just now arriving in Columbus?

A: Columbus has an incredible support system, from Columbus Area Multi-Ethnic Organization to Columbus Young Professionals, the Columbus Area Visitors Center, the Heritage Fund, etc. Connect and make use of all the resources. It’s been an incredibly friendly community. I’m not sure if people who are new to the community know that. I did not know anybody for the first few months, in part because I did not know about the resources, and because the Indian Association was not nearly as big. Now we have a Facebook page and website and help people with housing, furniture and documents such as Social Security cards.

Q: What’s your favorite city and why?

A: My hometown, Mumbai. It’s crowded, with 20 million people, but on the coast, you can sit there and feel like you’re the only person in the world, which is very calming. And the city never sleeps. Even when I walk home at 2 a.m. I feel safe walking alone. And no matter the time, you can always find a roadside food vendor for a snack of dosa (rice crepe) or vada pav (a vegetarian equivalent of a burger). I also love Columbus because of its conveniences. It is small but an incredible cultural melting pot. Like New York City — but without the traffic.

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