Kudaligama’s Service to Grad Students, Illinois CS Earns Graduate College Recognition
Interim Department Head Vikram Adve says going to Viveka Kudaligama, the coordinator of graduate programs for Illinois Computer Science, is the default answer to any number of questions related to being a grad student in the department.
Some of those questions are routine. Some are anything but.
In 2015, Kudaligama was asked to figure out how to help when an Illinois CS PhD student was barred from returning to the United States after attending a conference. Helping, as it turned out, required months of navigating complex federal rules, helping the student, Motahhare Eslami, navigate a process that was evolving based on international politics, and just plain being there for Eslami.
For those efforts and others, Kudaligama has been honored with the 2018 Graduate College Excellence Award for Graduate Contacts.
“Not knowing whether or not I would be able to return to campus was a very scary situation, but Viveka’s guidance kept me optimistic and calmer than I would have been without her,” Eslami wrote in a letter supporting Kudaligama’s nomination.
The award, Kudaligama said, came as a pleasant surprise.
“Absolutely, given the number of people who work with the graduates on campus,” she said. “There are people who've been in their current positions or been in the system for many, many years and doing great things.”
And Chekuri says his three years as director of Graduate Studies started with his own concerns about his new position and, at the time, her new role as coordinator.
“My concerns were unwarranted,” he said in his own letter backing Kudaligama’s nomination. “I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with.”
She also brings expertise based on her own experience as a grad student. She has a master’s degree in agricultural and resources economics from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and was a PhD student in agricultural economics at the University of Illinois.
“I still miss sometimes not being able to be in the classrooms. I really enjoyed the TA appointments I had -- probably too much,” she said. “Now I'm telling students, ‘You might really, really, really like this, but you have to focus on getting the degree completed.’”
But of all the work that the award recognized, Eslami’s predicament is the most dramatic.
Eslami, a student from Iran, was trying to re-enter the United States in March 2015 after attending a conference in Vancouver. Her visa was revoked for reasons that still aren’t clear, and she was forced to spend a month in Canada trying to clear up her status.
She had difficulties getting paid for the research assistant work she had already done on campus, and, as she discovered, no immediate way back.
Kudaligama worked with the Graduate College, the International Student and Scholar Services office, and campus legal counsel – which also worked with an outside immigration lawyer -- trying to resolve the situation. She also found an emergency fund that allowed Eslami to apply for some short-term financial help.
Eslami eventually was forced to return to Iran. while her husband, Illinois CS PhD student Amirhossein Aleyasen, stayed on campus.
There, she could no longer work with her advisor, Professor Karrie Karahalios. The services of a professor, they discovered, fall under the embargo against trade with Iran.
“I know about trade embargoes, I know about the trade sanctions,” Kudaligama said, noting her agricultural background. “But I always thought of trade sanctions in terms of your wheat and the corn and hogs, soybeans.”
The two stayed in regular contact over the months that followed while Eslami worked through the extensive background checks required to regain her visa.
“During that year I was writing to her almost every day, perhaps more than once a day sometimes when things were happening,” Kudaligama said.
And in February of 2016 Eslami did get her visa back, re-enrolling and rejoining her husband.
She’s on track to graduate in May.
The bond Kudaligama says the two developed is no doubt stronger because of what happened, but not out of the ordinary, she aid.
“I feel like I've gotten to know her a little bit more,” she said. “But that is part of being a student here, too.”