A life-changing year at Northeastern as experienced by best friends from India

Two students, including one in cap and gown, pose against a backdrop of international flags
Pulkit Khandelwal (left) was convinced by friend Hardik Upadhyay to leave India for a year of graduate studies at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern’s 2023 commencement exercises. For more information, visit our dedicated commencement page.

They were best friends who grew up across the street from each other in Indore, the largest city in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Hardik Upadhyay was already headed to Northeastern to pursue a master’s degree in data analytics engineering. He was trying to persuade his lifelong friend, Pulkit Khandelwal, to accompany him to Boston. But Pulkit was resistant.

So Hardik filled out—on behalf of his friend—a large portion of the Northeastern application to study for a quantitative finance master’s degree. He collaborated with Pulkit’s mother to eventually persuade him to embark on a one-year adventure to America.

“We have to go,” Hardik recalls telling his friend. “It’s a great place. You go for one year. That’s a great experience for you. You can inculcate all of this stuff, like the work culture, and take it back to India. 

“So I convinced him thoroughly—we have to go, go, go.”

They arrived last August. From their apartment near Fenway Park—leased before their visas had been approved—they set out to explore the city of Boston. They visited New Hampshire. They purchased appropriate clothing as the seasons changed.

“We got the same kind of jackets for the winter, we got the same boots,” Hardik says. “You can even see the shoes we are wearing right now.”

The friends are wearing identical white Under Armour sneakers.   

“It was ‘buy one, get one,’” Pulkit says. 

For the New Year holiday weekend they set out separately. Pulkit traveled with another friend to see New York City—the Empire State Building, Hudson Yards, Brooklyn Park, the Statue of Liberty, a New Year’s Eve cruise party.

“And at the same time I was in San Francisco, the Bay Area,” Hardik says. “We took a risk to spend the New Year on the Golden Gate Bridge. Because I always saw that in the movies when I was a kid—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Godzilla movies and everything. They have a name for the fog over the city. It’s Karl. Karl the Fog.”

They flew to Florida, where Hardik persuaded Pulkit to try one of the roller coasters at Universal Studios in Orlando. In Miami the roles were reversed.

“He knows how to swim in the sea. I don’t,” Hardik says. “So he and one of our friends, they go inside the sea. And we were on the shore and he’s like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go!’ 

“But it’s not alright,” continues Hardik, laughing as he tells the story. “If you’re not secured, if you go there without a float, you will definitely draw a line.”

“You will float permanently,” says Pulkit, cracking up at his joke.

In Boston they helped each other with their homework. For supper they took turns making aromatic Indian dishes. 

“Our siren goes every time,” Hardik says. “Because of the smoke. And sometimes the neighbors say, ‘Are you OK?’ Yeah, we were OK, don’t worry, we’re just cooking the food. And one time our [landlord], he had the food and he says, ‘It’s the best meal I’ve ever had.’”

They took advantage of a Northeastern promotion to purchase cheap tickets to a baseball game at Fenway Park. Pulkit, having grown up playing cricket with Hardik, caught a home run ball. Between the two of them they were able to make sense of the baseball rules.

“It’s all about the experience and that was very fine,” says Hardik, though the weather that night was not ideal. “It’s not like cats and dogs but it was a little bit drizzly with the water.”

By the final innings they were able to work themselves down to the most expensive (and empty) seats behind home plate.

“So we experienced that as well,” says Hardik, who by then felt a kinship with the fans. “They were supporting the Boston Red Sox and we were like, we got it. It’s easy for us, like, it’s a piece of cake now.”

They found themselves breaking down and examining things that their American peers may have been taking for granted. The approach to teaching, encouraging students to think for themselves, was a revelation. 

“In the real world no one will give you the question,” Pulkit says. “You have to find your own answer, your own solution, without having advisement. I really appreciate that.”

The smallest gestures turned their heads. Holding open a door for the next person is something they still talk about.

“Back in India it doesn’t happen like that because we have, like, billions of people,” Hardik says. “So everybody has to deal with their own self.”

“When it comes to manners, it’s implied,” Pulkit says. “It’s like, you don’t have to teach them. They will learn by seeing others. I think that it’s very good that people care about each other.”

The academic year flew by and the two friends found themselves back at Fenway Park early Sunday morning for the graduate commencement ceremony. It was a sentimental time for Hardik, dressed in a gray suit. Pulkit, in his cap and gown, was speaking of his plans to visit California before returning home to India in September. 

“While he is away I have to do my graduation next year,” says Hardik, who will be on co-op to begin the concluding year of his master’s program.

Pulkit has promised to return to Boston to help celebrate his friend’s graduation in 2024. He understands now why Hardik was so intent on traveling so far. 

“This will be my one-time experience,” Pulkit says, glancing at the friend who helped create the life-changing journey he will never forget.

“No worries bro,” replies Hardik at the end of Year One in America. “I got you.”

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at i.thomsen@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.