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Challenges and Rewards Facing Foreign-Born Female Mathematicians in the US

Bhamini M. P. Nayar

My story begins with my father, who was a renowned educator and a well-known poet in Malayalam, the language of Kerala State, India. I grew up watching his interactions with colleagues and former students who often came to see him and would discuss poetry and literature. I observed how he cherished his students and how much he was admired. He devoted his life to teaching and learning and left a lasting legacy of a true scholar. His ability to listen, explain things without making others feel intimidated, and his directness in conveying ideas were some of his inimitable qualities. His students often commented about his calm explanations and I observed that many sought the opportunity to be his students. He instilled in me a courage based on humility and purpose. My father encouraged me to study any subject I wanted but insisted that I study it well. I wanted to follow his career choice as an educator and chose to become a mathematician.

When I was in the tenth standard, my father wrote four lines of a poem just for me, which translates as the following:

My daughter, victory is at hand for actions of an unwavering and incorruptible mind; darkness envelopes the world with vengeance, but sun is sure to rise and rise it will. 1

The message of those four lines, were prophetic later when I faced all of the challenges mentioned below. They kept me going knowing that the sun’s rays were sure to rise to chase away the darkness. The source of those rays came in the form of dedicated mentors, colleagues, friends, and especially students.

All my education was in India. I started my career in the United States soon after I received my PhD in mathematics from the University of Delhi, India. When I arrived, I was full of anticipation, especially since I was starting my career in a new country with a different culture. I was excited to be an educator and to be responsible for helping and preparing young students for their future careers. I knew it was going to be challenging because I was unfamiliar with the new environment. In retrospect, it was rewarding as well as challenging.

Dedicated mentors who stand by us when situations become exceptionally challenging are invaluable. I was extremely fortunate to have had such help. While I was doing my PhD in India, I had the opportunity to read several articles by Professor James. E. Joseph. When I arrived in the United States, one of the first things I did was to ask to meet with Professor Joseph. He was generous with his time and during our first meeting he showed great interest in my work 1. To quote from what I said at the time of Professor Joseph’s retirement, “I went to see Professor Joseph that day with a very apprehensive mind of a nervous student going to discuss his/her ongoing research with a well-known and well established researcher in the field and I came home with the relief of finding someone with whom I felt comfortable to discuss my doubts, even those I thought I ought to know. That has been my experience with Professor Joseph, ever since” 2. Although I had offers for positions from other universities, I accepted a position in his department to work with and learn from him 1. He has been a mentor to me in the US until his recent passing.

When I started teaching, I was not familiar with the educational system in the US. As a young woman and fresh PhD, I was very apprehensive despite being passionate about teaching and research. I made every effort to prepare any topic I was going to teach well in advance so that I could teach my classes with confidence. I knew that a good student could recognize an instructor who was not confident about the subject and who was not in control of the class. During one of my first semesters teaching Calculus, I found that the students did not do well on the first test I gave. With the graded tests in hand, I asked the class what the difficulty was on the test. One student was bold enough to tell me, “well, we all speak English” and went on to say something more. For someone who had all her higher education in English, I had no doubt of my ability to explain mathematics in English, but of course I had the accent of someone who recently came from India. I did not notice the undertone of that student’s comment until after the class when several students came to apologize to me for their classmate’s statement.

I was fortunate to have had excellent teachers throughout my education. I graduated with an MSc in Mathematics from Union Christian College (UCC), Kerala, India. My success as an educator is significantly due to the early training I received there. Two of my professors, M. Madhavankutty (MM) and N. S. Neelakantan (NSN) taught me for seven years (two years of predegree courses, three years of BSc courses, and two years of MSc courses). MM’s ability to control the class with a winning smile, never being agitated and NSN’s ability to describe a problem in meticulous detail are phenomenal. I learned from each of these exemplary educators and I try to emulate them in my interaction with students, both in and out of the classroom 1. The challenges we face in the classroom are generally manageable with dedication to the profession and prior preparation, with the understanding that the instructors and students are in this journey together, and that without challenge there is no excellence.

I recall that one of the questions I was asked by the vice president for academic affairs during the interview before I was hired was how I would handle a class in which students have different levels of prior preparation. My response was that I would look at the students directly while teaching so that if anyone was feeling lost, I would stop and explain what was not clear. From that question, it was evident to me that he valued an instructor’s ability to communicate well with the students. I kept that in mind throughout my career as an instructor. Later when one of my graduate students commented that I move with students in their journey of learning, I felt satisfied to note that I was not unsuccessful in that attempt.

Every day brought new teaching challenges, primarily because my educational background was from a different system. In particular, the challenges were in navigating the cultural and training differences of students in the US and meeting the expectations of the profession without compromising my integrity. The rewards came in seeing my students succeed as a result of my teaching and molding their thinking about mathematics, as well as when I got to know the students individually and was able to help them navigate whatever difficult situations they were struggling with. Also, I felt rewarded when students took the time to let me know that all the hard work, I had expected of them was worth it, though they did not realize at the time. Anyone who has had similar experiences is bound to feel the same immense satisfaction.

Outside of the classroom, I was originally extremely happy to be among seemingly friendly colleagues and students seeking me out for help. I did not mind my office being crowded with students. When many of my colleagues were happy and eager to attend my wedding reception, and when the baby shower organized for me by the department was attended by many of my colleagues, I thought these were indications that I was accepted. Later, when it came time for recognition and rewards and I saw the role that power dynamics played, I understood the emptiness of that acceptance. One of my trusted senior colleagues had warned me (often indirectly) not to believe every statement of appreciation, yet I only realized later what a valuable lesson this was.

After that, I understood that I might have to face intimidating situations, both in the classroom and among colleagues. This was confirmed by my experiences of being constantly tested, questioned, and doubted. When I was asked to do a task for the department, I would complete it with professionalism and dedication, expecting to be appreciated as a valuable team member. To my dismay, my work would often be forgotten. For someone who has done above and beyond their peers in similar situations, such blows would make me lose balance and create self-doubt, which affected my overall well-being. When it came to career advancement, I was required to meet higher expectations than what was asked of my male peers. This made me wonder whether women must be better than their male counterparts in order to receive the same level of recognition. During each of these periods, my students were always the shining light. Working with them, seeing their appreciation of my dedication, and watching their progress always brought joy to my life.

The early training I received from my teachers, and how they listened to my doubts and guided me with respect, molded my approach to my profession. As my father expressed in his poem, the “actions of unwavering and incorruptible mind” chase away the vicious darkness. For me, what chases away the vicious darkness are the hard-working students, dedicated mentors of incorruptible integrity, and professional colleagues and friends who make the workplace atmosphere a supportive family environment.

Having gone through this journey as a mathematician, I wonder whether those who are starting their careers know how to navigate a fulfilling professional journey, without being battered along the path as I was. I think that this question is more pronounced for female mathematicians than for their male counterparts, especially those who come from a different country and culture. I pondered throughout my career how to mentor my students so that I could look back later in life with the satisfaction of having helped them achieve productive and satisfying careers. So, when I was invited to write an article for the Early Career section, I accepted the offer with the hope that sharing my experiences might be of some help to others who are in similar situations.

One lesson I have learned is that female mathematicians originally from another country who choose to be mathematics educators in the US may face the following challenges:

1.

In the beginning, we are naive and just happy to be in the profession of our choice, so we might not be aware of judgements about us. But they can hit us hard later.

2.

We are often subject to a disparity in career advancement in terms of tenure, promotion, salary and compensation, recognition, and workplace atmosphere, which may be presented as “keeping standards up.”

The most important advice that I want to pass on is the importance of finding a good mentor with experience and integrity and following their guidance to navigate the rough waters you may face in your professional journey.

I shall conclude this essay with another quote from the article I wrote to Professor Joseph on the occasion of his retirement.

I am fortunate to have had some great teachers and I remember them quite affectionately. Even though I was not fortunate to be one of your formal students, among my teachers, you are in the forefront. There was not a single instance when I had a conversation with you and I had not learned something, let it be mathematics or otherwise. You taught me to continue to be a student to be a better teacher; you taught me how to care for the students, while being insistent about their learning; you taught me not to be intimidated by pretentious individuals; you taught me not to lose self-respect while facing obnoxious and condescending opposition; you taught me to respect an opposite point of view; you taught me not to lose confidence in the right when faced with unfair opposition, and I am still learning from you not to be vengeful, but to concentrate on the task at hand. Yes, I was looking for a friend like you, a friend whom I can always count on, a friend to whom I can confide without being afraid of being judged, a friend who will invariably try to make me feel better when I feel sad, a friend who understands what I say without reading between the sentences, a friend who does not hesitate to oppose me and correct me when I am wrong and a friend whose silence is also eloquent. Yes, I was also looking for a mathematician whose mathematical abilities did not reach to arrogance. I thank God that I found in you not only such a great mathematician, but also a teacher, a friend and above all a genuine integral human being. 2

I believe the understanding without judgement and support without being asked that I received from Professor Joseph are the type of mentoring that we all need. I know very well how it prepared me to be strong and courageous, and to speak the truth when necessary while maintaining my professional integrity. I strive to be the kind of mentor to my students and my junior colleagues that he was to me.

I hope that each person, especially a foreign-born female who embarks on a rewarding journey as an educator and mathematician, will find a mentor who will see her inner strength and mold that strength into an unbreakable spine to stand tall. I hope she will have supportive colleagues to work with who value her contributions. We all need that support to survive, flourish, and never give up, even when faced with intimidating situations or pretentious opposition. As we stand tall with our professionalism and integrity, we create lasting images for generations of students to follow. That is our legacy.

Acknowledgments

I acknowledge with sincere appreciation the critical comments I received from my friend and colleague Dr. Ahlam Tannouri of the Department of Mathematics at Morgan State University and from the editors of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Their critical reading and editing made this article a better reading than it was before the editing.

References

[1]
Bhamini M. P. Nayar, Professional journey in US of a female mathematician of Indian origin, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics (to appear).
[2]
Bhamini M. P. Nayar, Professor James E. Joseph: A teacher, a mathematician, a friend and a genuine human being, Article written at the occasion of Professor James Joseph’s retirement.

Credits

Photo of Bhamini M. P. Nayar is courtesy of Bhamini M. P. Nayar.