Illinois Computer Science professors recall the meaningful nature of their undergraduate university and the effect it had on their professional and personal lives after receiving this recognition earlier in March
Although unable to travel to the university where they conducted undergraduate work, both reflected upon the award and the role IIT Bombay played on their growth and development into highly decorated and effective faculty members here at Illinois Computer Science.
Both immediately recounted, first, the difficulty in even attending IIT Bombay – an experience dictated by an entrance exam, called the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), that tested them academically unlike anything up to that point.
“A long time ago, after my JEE exam, I didn’t think I was getting into IIT Bombay,” Sarita said. “So, it is with great humility that I accept this award, knowing that many other alumni have accomplished a lot more and remembering many dedicated teachers like Professors Vasi, Chandorkar, Revankar, Lal, Sahasrabudhe, and others that inspired me to take the paths that led to this recognition.”
“As Sarita said, the IIT entrance exam is so difficult and competitive that it is a life experience I cherish,” Vikram recalled. “I have enormous regard for the successes of IIT Bombay alumni, so I am both humbled and proud to be counted as a ‘distinguished’ alumnus!”
Academically, both detailed the kind of influence IIT Bombay had on their development.
For Sarita, especially, her role as a woman in STEM higher education and research has always represented a step outside the norm. During her acceptance speech, she credited her parents and parents-in-law for their progressive views – as she went off to a residential college and later worked in a demanding technical career far from home during a time when it was not common for women to do so in her home country.
She also recalled finding an oasis from this prevailing attitude at her hostel, the term for dormitories at IIT Bombay.
“IIT gave me the gift of spending my formative years in a community of women in technology in H10 – the women’s hostel. We were 11 women in my graduating class of 300+. Outside of H10, signals of otherness and signals that we didn’t belong were ubiquitous. But stepping into H10 was always like coming home, reinforcing that this campus was ours,” Sarita said.
On the same campus, Vikram was creating friendships in a different hostel – H7. He said that those are still people he considers friends, and he thoroughly enjoys seeing them at an annual reunion held in the United States.
But both also pointed to something else that occurred while at IIT Bombay that made an even greater difference in their lives.
“Of course, the biggest impact and most memorable part of my time at IIT was meeting and spending time with Sarita,” Vikram said of his wife. “We were lab partners several times over the years, usually a situation assigned to us. But by our fifth semester, we had begun to hang out a lot and would spend many hours chatting and wandering the campus or studying late into the night.”
The two became engaged after graduating from IIT and just before coming to the United States. Then both earned their advanced degrees from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, after getting married in 1988.
Before joining Illinois Computer Science, Sarita was on the faculty at Rice University and Vikram was a research scientist.
After moving to Illinois, they had two children, now adults. Sarita and Vikram both mentioned how society still has a long way to go to reduce the struggles faced by families where both parents seek deeply fulfilling professional and personal lives – they credited their children for their role in their parents’ professional successes.
“There’s no question that our lives have been deeply impacted personally as well as professionally by our time at IIT together,” Vikram said.
Both regretted not being in-person and on campus to accept the award from IIT Bombay.
Sarita did mention that she visited the university in 2018 for a student run event called TechFest – that she called amazing and where she gave a lecture.
Vikram hasn’t been back since the 25th anniversary of their graduation in 2012, which both attended together. Although, he did make note of the campus’ considerable expansion in terms of students and the ensuing construction that has taken place there, too.
“I deeply regret that we could not all be there to accept this award in-person, at a place that holds so many memories and has shaped my life that I have been so privileged to have led,” Sarita said at the conclusion of her acceptance speech.