The Eye

From Nagpur to New York City

“A few years ago my mom was asking me, ‘Do you have a girlfriend in the United States?’” Nick Gupta, a second-year student in the School of General Studies, tells me. “And I said: ‘Of course I do. The Statue of Liberty.’”

Nick Gupta’s legal name is Neeraj, but he will be changing it to Nick when he becomes a U.S. citizen in two years. An immigrant from Nagpur, India, he studies computer science while working full time in University Apartment Housing.

He has short black hair and wears a fitted blue plaid shirt. With a scarcely discernible accent, he speaks warmly, in a well-rehearsed manner, as though he has told the story of his life many times before.

Unlike others who dream of New York and come only to find the city a disappointment, moving here didn’t evaporate Gupta’s love for the city. Instead, the same adoration he felt when he was young continues. His love is immense and obvious, forming a consistent thread throughout his life.

It all started when he first saw the Statue of Liberty while watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in Nagpur. “I would ask my dad, ‘Who is this lady with a torch? What did she represent?’ My dad told me she represented freedom. … I was so fascinated by her.”

Gupta never missed a cartoon, TV show, movie, or newspaper article on New York that he could find. He learned about the city with “care and interest,” he reflects. Since he didn’t have a computer at home, he would go to cyber cafés to do research.

In his early teens, Gupta made a website about the Statue of Liberty. He wrote about directions to the statue, such as the itinerary from New Jersey to Battery Park, and things to do there. His website showed so much intimate knowledge of the city, despite his geographical distance, that Helmut Christoferus Calabrese, who wrote the official Statue of Liberty anthem, contacted him.

For Gupta, learning about New York was a way to escape the pains of daily life. Summer temperatures reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Nagpur, and the monsoon season brought pouring rain.

In 2003, the government body controlling the city, called the Nagpur Municipal Corporation, had demolished Gupta’s family’s house for a road widening project. His family lived on his old house’s debris for six months before getting enough money to rent a new home. As a result, Gupta failed out of his junior college, Shri Mathuradas Mohota College of Science.

He describes this period as “one of the most difficult times in [his] life.” During the monsoon season, rain and wind brought pebbles into his family’s food, of which he says there was “not enough.” He recalls details of the rain dripping on their bodies, the torn clothes they wore, the mosquitoes that plagued them.

Gupta suffered strife within his family, as well. His father was an alcoholic and frequently physically abused his mother over petty things such as “putting too little salt in the food,” “taking 30 seconds longer to open the door,” or putting on “too much makeup.” Sometimes he would beat her until she bled. As a child, Gupta tried to stay at home to protect her, even though he was not strong enough. “I felt like I couldn’t have any friends,” he says sadly. “I couldn’t have fun when my mom was being tortured.”

Even when recalling these difficult times, Gupta’s tone stays neutral and calm. He speaks in an open, reflective manner. His story flows as one coherent piece. Outside the window, the sun sets and the campus grows darker. He says it was his love for New York that carried him through hard times.

And it was that same love, perhaps, that allowed him to escape them. One day, Robert Hammac, a man in his twenties from Florida, saw Gupta’s website about the Statue of Liberty. He and Gupta soon became close friends.

Gupta tells me that Hammac believed in him when nobody else around him did. For example, Gupta was determined to go to college in New York—even his mother thought it was impossible, and told him his dreams would “crush him to death.”

Despite the lack of parental support, with Hammac’s encouragement, Gupta paid for SAT and TOEFL exams with the money he made teaching English locally. Hammac paid his application fees to colleges, all of them schools in New York City.

Getting a visa was also a challenge. He didn’t know anyone in his city who was able to get a U.S. visa for undergraduate study—only for graduate school. And Gupta did not believe he could afford a U.S. education.

“But I applied anyway,” he says. “I [had] lived in so much misery and violence, and I want to be a freer man. I have this strong inclination to live in New York—to get that freedom.”

The woman who worked at the American consulate in Mumbai asked him: Why not stay in India for a computer science education? Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, offered a world-class program. Gupta replied that he wanted a well-rounded liberal arts education.

“I wanted to go to New York because I didn’t want to restrict myself to math and sciences,” he says. “I wanted to know about anthropology, psychology, theater, music … as many things as I could. I wanted to know what different perspectives are in life, how people think and construct society, what are their thoughts about what makes a human being, what makes them good.”

Gupta hoped that this knowledge would allow him to better get to know himself and his purpose in life.

The consulate worker liked his answer so much that she snatched his passport from his hands and stamped it immediately. Gupta demonstrates as he speaks, holding a stack of napkins and grabbing it quickly with the other hand.

He recalls her saying, “Welcome to the United States. You deserve it.”

Before moving, Gupta continued with his research on the city, learning every detail about life in New York. “I knew … what parts were more exciting, where to get a haircut, which subway went where, how to act like a New Yorker, how to walk fast, and how to try to give directions to tourists but not engage in conversations with them,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Nick Gupta

But life did not start out easy. Gupta came to the U.S. with little money. He juggled different jobs—at one point waiting at three different restaurants—working more than 80 hours per week. Sometimes he stayed hungry to send money back to India, he recalls.

Starting off at Hunter College in 2006, he switched to Borough of Manhattan Community College in 2010. “I transferred from a four-year college to a two-year community college, which is the opposite of what most people do,” Gupta reflects. But he believes it was the right decision. While at Hunter, he worked so much that he failed or withdrew from many of his classes. At BMCC, the lower tuition allowed him to work less, so he studied more and got better grades.

Gupta applied to Columbia College in 2005 and SEAS in 2007. He was rejected both times. Not giving up, he applied to work as a leasing assistant in Columbia Housing in 2014. He wanted the job because employees are entitled to free tuition benefits if admitted to the University, which was what he wanted.

Gupta prepared so much for his job interview that he knew more about University Housing than his interviewer. He got the job in July of 2014.

In 2015, he was accepted to General Studies and started in the fall. He adjusted his schedule to both work and attend classes.

He wrote a thank you letter to the admissions office, in which he quoted Nicholas Winton, a British philanthropist: “If something's not impossible, then there must be a way of doing it.” He says, to this day that he lives by the motto.

While he strove to improve his own situation, Gupta always cared about helping his family. In March 2015, he sent $11,000 to pay off his family’s debt and free them from loan sharks. In April 2015, he visited his family in India, seeing his father who has since changed for the best for the first time in six years. This past May, he took them on their first family vacation ever, to Singapore. His mother had never been on a plane before.

“They were so happy,” he recalls. “They had never dreamed of traveling abroad in their entire life. I was like, ‘Now we’re going to go every year to a different country.’”

Photo courtesy of Nick Gupta

Looking toward the future, Gupta says that he has a green card now and plans to become a citizen in a few years. He also wants to bring his family to live in the U.S. someday. As for his career, Gupta says, with a computer science degree, he might work at a company or start his own business.

“From this point on,” he says, “my greatest goal in life is to not become a rich person for myself, but to use most of my wealth to benefit the world.”

Throughout all of this, Gupta reflects, New York is what has driven him. “I wanted to be in a city that was fast. I wanted to be in a city that matched … my own personal energy. The energy that I have in my heart,” he says. “I just feel like New York itself is a different country. The rest of the U.S. could be one country, and New York could be a country by itself. It’s so vivid, so fast, so beautiful.”

“In the winter, you see steam coming from manhole covers,” Gupta recalls. “People would say it’s gross, it’s coming from the sewer, but it’s still beautiful, to me at least. It makes New York a dreamy place,” he tells me. “Hey, the city is living, and it’s alive, and it’s steaming off now. It’s just radiating energy everywhere. And here you are, a New Yorker. If you can be here, you can be anywhere.”

Gupta’s voice is composed, but his eyes are wide with enthusiasm. It is evident he feels at home in New York City, having worked his way here after all those years.

His Facebook profile reads: “If I am not a New Yorker, I am no one.”

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