Monday, April 18, 2011

A story of grit, determination and achievement over a lifetime.

I am back as promised with the story of Saras Saraswathi. She and I are members of a technical women's mailing list and she had posted this to the list. I reproduce her posts below verbatim with her permission, in reverse chronological order. The "thesis" she refers to is her PhD thesis. Saras was traveling to Canada to help out family even as she was trying to write up her thesis to meet the deadline. I found it mildly ironical that the one who's named after the Goddess of learning and knowledge should experience this, but the outcome is only fitting.

Perhaps you will find it as inspiring as I did. I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful to have had all the opportunities I've had, together with extremely supportive family and friends (you know who you are!) that have enabled me to take advantage of them. Thank you.

On Thu, Apr 7, 2011 at 4:27 AM, Saras wrote:

Hi Everyone...

My 38 year old dream came true yesterday. I successfully defended my thesis two years ahead of my classmates.

My research was in Secondary Structure Prediction of Proteins. We have very high accuracies of over 90% and I will be spending the next couple of months publishing my papers. I hope to join Nationwide Children's hospital in Ohio state later on.

Had to share this with my SYSTERS !! Thanks to all those people who rooted for me.. I still remember the day in 2007, when I was overwhelmed with all your responses and encouragement.

On Tue, Nov 20, 2007 at 5:48 PM, Saraswathi wrote:

Hi.. all,

I am back in school after 35 years... Just wanted to be proud of it.. and announce it to all of you...The story of my pursuit of education is for all those who are still trying to pursue their dreams............ read on if you are discouraged in any way.... and I hope to inspire you to keep going.....

I did not get a chance to pursue my studies in a university after my marriage was arranged at 16 in India. (1972). My family thought the best bet in life for me is to be married to a 'well educated' person and it was not important for me to be educated myself... I was the best student in my class in high school and all I was interested in was books, books and books. Unfortunately , my family did not agree with my views and did not let me go back to college.

Of all the boys and girls ( cousins, almost 20 of us, with equal number of boys and girls) in the family, although they knew I did better than anyone in my studies, everyone except me got a college education. Except me, just because my horoscope matched with the boys' horoscope !! I later found out that it did not match after all, and that 'things' were moved along, so that the girls' side could get a 'good catch' and the boy's side wanted a good 'housekeeper'. !!

I made a vow to myself, that even if I am 80 I will go back to school, when I get a chance at education in a world class university. This was all I meditated on for the past 35 years.... One day, I will continue where I left off....

Meanwhile, just to keep my brains from rusting, I did a correspondence course soon after my marriage, to make sure I had a basic degree at least. I had to take math and economics since they were the only subjects which did not involve lab work. I had my daughter the following year and even had to take her to the exam hall, since my family refused to babysit her while I wrote my exams. But i was naturally thrown out of the exam hall when my baby started screaming!!. this afffected my grades of course... they hoped I wont graduate.... I was determined to do this anyway and got my degree after 5 yrs instead of 3.

anyway I did my MS in CS in 1985 at ODU, when I got a break while visiting USA for a couple of years. I was not allowed to attend all my classes and never leave my kids with babysitters ( not that we could afford it). Still, I managed to graduate. Since I was not allowed to work over these years, to pass time, I taught IT part-time in colleges/universities and I did many courses, CCNA, E-Commerce engineering, became a certified accountant and did many other courses and learned to play many musical instruments, to keep my mind busy ( to avoid going mad).

But my life ambition was to do a PhD and it kept nagging my heart all the time. Because of my age, I could not get any job offers. I was surprised that there was no response from any companies, although I applied to hundreds of them over the years in USA and Singapore (between 2000 and 2005). I never found out why.. .. no one wanted to employ me.. Perhaps too many degrees or too wide a base, not enough industrial experience ?? So, how to leave home with no job to support myself ?

I had to wait another 21 years before I got admission for MS in bioinformatics at NTU, Singapore. I managed to finish the course in one year.. I had applied to many universities in USA. No admission was offered until May and I was at the lowest point in my life. I had a GPA of 3.64 and three research papers and twenty years of research, teaching and consulting experience.. but still no offers !!... FINALLY..... I got admission at IAstate and here I am. I am 53 years old.. and hope to finish my PhD within 5 years.....

There have been untold miseries in my fight to get an education.. I did not want to agree with people who thought that I do not need to pursue what I wanted just because I was born a woman in a poor Brahmin family and married to a conservative family who did not believe in woman advancement. I was forced to be a cook and do house work all these years in spite of my insatiable thrist for knowledge. I brought up two daughters and was determined they got the education I did not get. One is a gold medalist with a MS in networking and another is a nanotechnologist with a PhD. Both are professional musicians also. I have two grand kids.. 6 and 2 yrs.. a boy and a girl

Finally when I insisted that I wanted to pursue my study on a full time basis, I was told that I could stay if I wanted to continue to be a cook or leave forever....In my last months of studying, I even paid the expenses for my food and rent, in my own house !! So, I left when I got the admission offer from IaState !! It is totally unbelievable that this could happen, since we have lived together for over 35 years... with me doing most of the housework with no servants .. most the tutoring for the children came from me and that too when he is a university professor !!. I guess it was foolish of me to have stayed that long.. hoping that there will be a change of attitude. But the things you do in the name of family and kids and a closed society are quite unbelievable. I never could convince him of my thirst for knowledge...

so.. wish me well.. and I hope to write to you sometime.. when I finish my PhD. 5 yrs..? 6 yrs..? who knows.!!. the important thing is I am enjoying myself pursuing what I always wanted to do... and bless the souls who finally gave me a chance at this !!

I am writing this not to brag.. but for those who are pursuing your dreams... in all those countries where women education is not a priority.. dont lose sight of your dreams.. it is NEVER too late... Sustain your hopes and there will be someone somewhere who will help you achieve your goals and fulfill your dreams....

It does not matter what anyone thinks what we can or cannot do. We can do one of the most wonderful things.. bringing a life to earth.. IN ADDITION to everything that THEY can do !! Isn't that good enough ??



1 comment:


What an inspiring story. In 1972 at 16, how could they have got her married. I get so mad when I think of the family's selfishness.