Pittsburgh’s New Immigrants: Iowa State alum, CMU president Subra Suresh makes the case for diversity

The guest of honor was running late.

The 85 students waiting for him were patient, though, because it was a beautiful fall day, and they shared a special bond with the man coming to join them.

Each of the students was born in another nation and had chosen to come to Carnegie Mellon University to study. Standing in front of Warner Hall, they represented nearly 20 countries, from India and China to Greece and Chile.

Their guest was Subra Suresh, the Indian-born president of CMU, who has been heading the campus for 16 months after serving as director of the National Science Foundation. When he emerged into the balmy air, the students gave him a brief burst of applause before focusing their smiling faces on a photographer who was there to capture the moment. And of course, many of them grabbed selfies with him afterward.

About 40 percent of CMU’s enrollment is international students, including almost 60 percent of its graduate students, and last week, the Institute of International Education named the school one of the top 25 in the nation for the number of foreign-born students it serves. On top of that, many other students are Asian-American, giving the campus a distinctive, visible diversity.

Suresh, 58, who got his science doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981, is the very symbol of meritocratic achievement.

Growing up in Madras, he became one of the rarefied group admitted to the Indian Institutes of Technology, a school that is more selective than any American college.

“When I got into IIT in 1972,” he said in a recent interview, “it was based on my score in four, three-hour exams, and if you are in the top 1,300 out of 300,000 to 400,000 high school students, you get in. For some of the wealthy families in India, the Ivy League is considered a set of safety schools if their kids don’t get into IIT.”

He knew he wanted to go to the U.S. for graduate study, but in those years, India had such tight restrictions on foreign currency that a student could leave the country with only about $200 to pay for all his entrance exams, visa fees and other expenses. For that reason, Mr. Suresh would only apply to schools that agreed to waive their application fees. MIT, among others, wouldn’t waive the fee, but Iowa State University did.

He went from the heat of southern India to the winter of Ames, Iowa. He had never lived in a city of fewer than 2 million, and now he was in a college town that shrank to 15,000 people in the summer and had no Indian restaurants. “Back then it was meat and potatoes, or you didn’t have much choice.”

Still, he loved Iowa State, and after getting his master’s in mechanical engineering in 1979, he was accepted into MIT’s doctoral program, which he finished in fewer than two years. After that, he followed a mentor to the University of California at Berkeley for postdoctoral work, and Berkeley sponsored him for a permanent residency green card.

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