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'Sending Her To A Second Family'

Malavika Vinukonda and father

Rajaram and Malavika Vinukonda.

December 2016

Like any good future accountant, Malavika Vinukonda weighed the cost.

Like a true engineer, her father, Rajaram, measured benefits against risks.

The investment the father made in his daughter paid major dividends Dec. 17 when Malavika collected her St. Ambrose University Master of Accounting degree.

Rajaram, mother Lavanya, and sister Shyamala were on hand for the ceremony at the Davenport RiverCenter.

The Vinukondas came to the frigid U.S. Midwest for their first look at St. Ambrose the week of commencement, traveling from their home in Hyderabad, India, which is where this story began in 2014.

Malavika was an undergraduate at St. Francis University in Hyderabad when she learned about the American Business Experience, a partnership between St. Ambrose and St. Francis that was then entering its fifth year.

The program brings business students — typically from St. Francis but occasionally from other schools and nations, as well — to SAU for a month each summer to learn about American business practices, both in the classroom and via field trips to dozens of local companies and corporations.

"I didn't tell my parents because of the cost ," said Malavika, who did mention the opportunity to her grandmother, who told her mother, who then told Rajaram. " He was actually pretty mad at me for not informing him about the program."

A chemical engineer who does work in London and China and earned his degree in Bulgaria, Rajaram is a strong believer in the benefits of international study. And, although he said "in Indian culture we don't send our girls abroad because of concerns about safety," he did inquire about the A.B.E. program with other St. Francis parents in the spring of 2014.

What he learned made him comfortable with sending his daughter to St. Ambrose, along with 13 other St. Francis students, for the month-long immersion in American business.

What Malavika learned about St. Ambrose during that visit made both father and daughter eager to have her return to pursue a master's degree.

"I made so many connections at this school and took so much information back to my parents, they were really particular about me coming back to this school," said Malavika, who is the second ABE grad to return for her master's. "Immediately, when I got back home I started the process of applying. And then one day, I got an email saying 'You are accepted.' Oh my gosh, that was the best day ever."

Her experience since returning to SAU in the fall of 2015 has been rewarding as well. She has made close friends of fellow Master of Accounting graduates Jian Guan from China and Nazia Sarwar from Bangladesh, and befriended countless other members of the SAU international student population while working as a graduate assistant at the Center for International Education.

With an open smile and engaging personality, Malavika has made friends of virtually everyone she has met under the oaks. That's easy to do at St. Ambrose, she said.

"You feel welcomed," she said. "I don't feel like an outsider. I don't think any state university is going to treat international students this well. Who is going to pick you up at the airport? Take you grocery shopping every weekend? Make sure you are having a good experience?"

Because St. Ambrose is a relatively small university with a "family atmosphere," Rajaram said international students can thrive here more easily than at larger schools. The sense of community, in fact, is the first thing he learned from other St. Francis parents while inquiring about the ABE.

"They told us, 'At St. Ambrose, you are sending her to a second family,"' he said.

Bitter cold notwithstanding, the Vinukonda family was impressed at their first look at St. Ambrose this week.

They were more impressed with what they saw in Malavika.

"She learned a lot of things here," the father said. "To stand on her own. She has improved her character, her personality, her lifestyle. Everything has changed. We are very proud."

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