Friday, June 04, 2010

Making a difference in one student’s life

According to the Dalai Lama (see his book, How to Practice: A Guide to a Meaningful Life), Buddhist teachings can be summed up in two principles: (1) If possible, help others. (2) If that is not possible, do no harm. Among many professions that offer almost limitless opportunities to help others, being a professor is one. But the students who pass through our lives soon move on to the business of their lives. That is as it should be. If we have made a difference, we learn about it only rarely. This posting is about one of of those times.

The other day, I had lunch with a doctoral student in the University Co-Op. She told me about a professor who in two encounters, had taken time to impact her profoundly. “Have you told her about the difference she made in your life?” I asked. The student’s response was surprising. She blogs regularly and had described the encounter in a posting. Then she had sent her professor a link. How wonderful the professor must have felt when she read what this incredibly thoughtful student had written. What follows is the the text of her posting, with only some minor redacting so that it will not be possible to identify the professor or the student. The blog was entitled


Had an interesting meeting with an amazing woman today - Jessica Standish. Jessica is a visiting professor from Canada, spending one semester at our School. I was first introduced to her at one of our lectures where she gave a presentation on her research method, econometrics, and I was completely impressed, by her knowledge, her style and her dedication. A week or two later I sought her out and had an inspiring meeting with her. Then came the phase of assignments and exams and I lost touch, but would occasionally bump into her in School. After almost a month I met her again today and now feel sad that I should have sought her out more often as I do not know when I will see her again - I leave for Indonesia this Thursday and by the time I get back in August she would have completed her term here (hopefully to return next year).

Today we discussed the suitability of an activist like myself, in the field of academia. Recently I have had a lot of questions churning in my mind which I needed to air out and get some honest feedback. What is uncommon about this woman is that she is one of the most practical persons that I have come across, but who respects and honours idealism totally. And she is brutally honest, something that I personally respect in people.

Jessica said that this PhD for me is my Rite of Passage and I should focus on that aspect. She said that academic institutions pride themselves on being rational, but that is a misnomer. Each institution has its own set of values, norms and traditions, and there are upholders of these traditions who need to be acknowledged. She gave me practical tips on how to go about my PhD business, which I plan to adhere to in toto. What is fascinating about her, which I shared with her too, is that almost all the opinions she shares with me I take it as serious advice, while the same thing if something else had advised me I might have considered it as a perspective and dismissed it. I still do not understand how she gets to me :)

But I am thankful that our paths crossed and hope to meet her again in future too. She did say that if and when she comes back to this School, and gets involved with the PhD programme, she would like to be a part of my Research Committee. I do hope that day comes soon. I just have so much to learn from her!

Wikipedia: Rites of passage have three phases: separation, transition, and re-incorporation. In the first phase, people withdraw from their current status and prepare to move from one place or status to another. There is often a detachment or ‘cutting away’ from the former self in this phase. The transition (liminal) phase is the period between states, during which one has left one place or state but hasn't yet entered or joined the next; the person adjust to the new status. In the third phase, having completed the rite and assumed their 'new' identity, one re-enters society with one's new status, a re-incorporation.

A footnote from Dormgrandpop for students. When a professor - or in fact anyone - makes a positive difference in your life, tell them about it. Even better, post an acknowledgement in your blog and send them the link.

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