Saturday, December 30, 2006


Dec. 27, 2006

Today is exactly 30 years since I boarded the plane for the first time in my life. I boarded the Indian Airlines plane at Madras - Meenambakkam Airport en route to Chicago via Bombay, London and New York. I had gained admission to Northwestern University (NU) to do my M.S.

I have traveled a long way.

For those who do not know me or do not know where I have been:

Today I am settled in Atlanta. When I left Chennai, I was an Assistant Professor of Planning at the School of Architecture and Planning at the (then) University of Madras. I came to the US on a student visa, having gotten admission to NU. I borrowed from my Life Insurance Policy for my flight and initial expenses at the US. I had to use our house in Chennai (built by my father, and in my name) as collateral. I came here with just $80 (which I lost the second day of my arrival) as allowed by the RBI, leaving my wife and young children. I was given 6 months leave with half salary (Rs. 400/mo) by my employer. I did my MS in NU, and then went on to Purdue University (PU) in W. Lafayette, Indiana for my Ph.D. After working in 6 States in the US and in Malaysia, including 18 months of unemployment during 1986-87, I retired as Professor of Civil Engineering at Alabama A&M University on January 1, 2005. In what follows, I am sharing my travels and travails.

Why I did what I did:

I set out for higher studies, with no support from my employer of 8 years. After giving as much trouble as possible, my employer finally granted me study leave of 6 months on half pay (about Rs. 400 per month).

I was 39 years of age. My daughter was 7 years old and my son was 5. My wife, a B.A. graduate, did not work. As the first daughter-in-law in a family of 9, she had enough work at home. I was an Assistant Professor of Planning at MU, a fairly settled job. We were living in our own house with my brothers.

My friend and classmate at Guindy , Late Dr. K. S. Rajagopalan asked me: “Hey! Do you think you are getting younger each year or what?”

What made me take such a drastic – almost foolhardy – step at that stage in life?

There were two motivating factors:

1. I missed graduating from Guindy with high rank. I wanted to compensate for that, and I got my M. Tech. from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT-Kgp). My IIT-Kgp experience of 2 years, and my continuous review of literature on Urban Planning aroused a desire in me to do higher studies in the US. Particularly the papers on Regional Planning Models by Walter Isard , Briton Harris and others of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) were fascinating. So I was preparing for going to UPenn at some point, hoping to be helped and at least partially supported by my employer and other sources.

2. I saw persons with far less experience being promoted while I was not - time and again. So, I decided (and even said so to some) to leave the profession or the country if not both! Finally, around 1975, during the Vice-Chancellorship of Dr. Malcolm Audiseshiah, I was promoted to Assistant Professor. Persons with educational qualifications equivalent to mine, but far less experience, were promoted few years before and thus I was junior to many who were a few years younger to me. This, added with other facts of life in our society, made me realize that my future in MU is sealed as Assistant Professor for the rest of my life.

These two factors pushed me to overlook the risk I was taking and the difficult situation I was leaving my wife and children in.

How I did it:

Though I got promoted as Assistant Professor around 1975, I realized my predicament much earlier and started my research and preparations to go to the US. I had already obtained my passport, and I took GRE and TOEFL exams. All of these cost money, and it was tough to find it within my limited salary and the commitments to my family including providing support to my father as one of my sisters was yet to be married, and one of my brothers was just starting University education. I somehow managed these expenses. I even appealed and got waiver of the admission fees of $20 from UPenn.

But, in 1975, with two of my brothers already gainfully employed, and with the frustration at work reaching a climax, I started applying to Universities very vigorously.

Sowmyan Raman and Late Dr. K. S. Rajagopalan, two of my Guindy classmates who were already in the US, helped me a lot by responding to my letters and explaining the admission procedures and other tips.

In the meanwhile, my father, who was retired from the Corporation of Madras and settled in our village near Madurai, had transferred the title of our house in my name. I had taken a whole life insurance policy a few years ago. I was able to borrow my flight expenses against my LIC policy with our house as collateral – a BIG risk!

With the usual trouble from the American Consulate and the Reserve Bank of India, I managed to get my visa and also a foreign exchange of $80 ( about Rs. 640 then)

There was a silver lining: NU had sent a cable that they have awarded me a Research Assistantship. This was a big help in getting my Visa. Also, it was as if God wanted to test my perseverance before giving me the aid which was not forthcoming from any earthly source! The research assistantship was to the tune of $350 for 20 hours a week of work. It also included full tuition waiver. NU is a prestigious private university and is one of the costly universities.

At NU, it was a very shaky start. Coming back to higher studies, competing with highly meritorious and hard working young students, in a totally unfamiliar system and environment was….. well…. Not easy! But after the Winter Quarter, I was able to gain the confidence of my professors by my research contribution and my performance in coursework. Also, I stayed in very cheap accommodations, did dishwashing in cafeterias in exchange for one meal a day, did other works as cleaning houses and helping in lawn work, etc. to save more.

This was me on April 10, 1978: (Not fully out of choice!)

Why I Stayed:

In the summer of 1977 , I was given a fulltime research position by my advisor/professor Dr. Peterson. This was at $1100 per month for three months. Also, I was the resident assistant in a hostel in exchange for my room. Now I was eating two meals a day!

I was finishing my MS by Dec. 1977. I bought my ticket to return, as by now I had cleared my loan and had enough to pay for my return flight.

But, I was not too happy to return with just another Master’s degree. So, I just took a chance and called Prof. K. C. Sinha of Purdue University. Purdue was one of the four universities I had applied for, the fourth being Ohio State University. I had read technical articles by Dr. K. C. Sinha when I was in Chennai. He encouraged me to visit the University in West Lafayette, Indiana. It was just a couple of hundred miles from NU.

I took a bus and went there to meet him and other professors. (I was yet to buy a car.) I also had the opportunity to meet several students from India, doing their Ph.D in the Civil Engineering Department. From them I got very encouraging feedback about the possibility of getting good assistantship. Also, the Married Students Housing on campus was available. These were 2-bed roomed apartments, at $129 per month. (In NU, the graduate housing was $250 per month and up; I stayed off campus, in basements or attics, at $80 per month. There was no way I could have continued for Ph. D. at NU with that assistantship, though Dr. Peterson wanted me to stay on to do Ph.D)

So, I moved to Purdue in June 1978. I made arrangements to bring my family to W. Lafayette, Indiana. They arrived there to join me in Aug. 1978. I had also applied for extension of my leave (with no pay) to enable me to complete my Ph.D. But, around Sep. 1978, I got a letter from my former employer in Chennai that my services have been terminated as I did not return to work when my leave expired.

I bought my first car - an 8-cylinder, early 60s model Chevy Malibu for $500.

What happened afterwards?

I completed my coursework by the summer of 1979. I just needed to complete my research and produce my thesis for my Ph. D., which did not require me to stay on campus. I was feeling guilty to deprive my family – especially my children – of a normal life, as it was difficult to provide for them with my income as a graduate research assistant. An opportunity came for me to join as Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, WI. I took the job in Fall 1979, and we all moved there. But, soon I realized that I need my Ph. D. to survive in the US or India. Also, it became apparent that completing my thesis away from campus, with full-time job is next to impossible.

So, I returned to Purdue in Spring 1980 to complete my Ph.D in Summer 1981.

How Did I end up in Atlanta, GA? Or:
What happened from 1981 onwards?

Now the fact that I have no job in India combined with the realization that I need some work experience to get the full benefit of my Ph. D made me try for teaching positions in the US. I succeeded in getting Assistant Professorship at the University of Portland (UP), Oregon. I taught Statics, Strength of Materials, Engineering Drawing, Computer Aided Drafting, Engineering Economy, Highway Engineering, Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering and Operations Research during my tenure at UP. It took two years to get my “green card”. In 1984, I was denied tenure and promotion at the UP. The Dean of Engineering said I can apply again next year, but the President indicated that I need to wait for two more years.

I took the telephone and called the Center for Transportation Research (CTR) at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin). The secretary to Dr. Hudson, an expert on Pavement Maintenance, indicated that he was looking for a Ph.D, and she encouraged me to send my resume. In a short time, I got a call from Dr. Hudson, and after the brief telephone interview, he offered me the position, matching my salary at UP.

I started my position as a Research Engineer at CTR in Aug, 1984.

Though I was told at the time of the telephone interview (1) I stand a chance to become a full faculty at UT-Austin, and (2) they have never laid off anybody at the CTR, I found both these statements were not true.

I learnt that UT-Austin as a policy does not let a Research Engineer to join the faculty, notwithstanding their Ph.D.

In Aug. 1986, I was ruthlessly removed from their payroll with 2 weeks notice. Now my children were in their high school, and my wife was not employed. My pleas to Dr. Hudson and the Director for CTR to retain me for at least two semesters and give me time to find a teaching position elsewhere were turned down.

I was unemployed.

I tried to earn by selling Life Insurance, part-time teaching to teach College Algebra and Business Statistics at the Austin Community College, and also did substitute teaching to 7th graders. I was helped by a professor in the Business School at UT-Austin, who took me as a half-time research assistant in his project. All these works together gave me about $1000 a month!

In Jan. 1988, I got an opportunity to teach in Malaysia. There was an arrangement for giving US education to Malay students. Instead of the students coming to the US, professors from a consortium of Texas Universities went to Kuala Lumpur and taught the students in Malaysia. I taught Statics, FORTRAN, and Engineering Economics.

After return from that project in Jan. 1989, I was jobless for a few months before I got a job as a Design Engineer/CAD Resource Person in a local Engineering Company. I got this job not because of my Ph. D; it was my PE (professional engineer license) that got me the job.

I was one of two Ph.Ds in that company. By 1991, the company was shrinking for want of projects, and I was on a 4-day week – which meant a pay cut of 20%

All along I was on the lookout for a teaching position as I was underpaid as a private company employee. Also the uncertainty and lack of benefits was scary.

In 1992 my application to Alabama A&M University (AAMU) resulted in my getting appointed as Associate Professor of Civil Engineering. I taught Engineering Graphics, Statics, Strength of Materials, Transportation Engineering I and II, Engineering Economics, Civil Engineering Practice, and Civil Engineering (Capstone) Design Project.

Though I enjoyed the undergraduate teaching, I just felt like retiring and did so effective from Jan. 1, 2005.

My daughter, who graduated from UT-Austin and got her MS from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, is married and settled in Atlanta. She had to leave her infant son in a nursery, while she went to work.

It just made sense for us – me and my wife – to move to Atlanta and thus be of help to our daughter.