As graduation ceremonies across the world are cancelled, I think back to the day of my own robing ceremony which was held for Ph.D. students the day before the campus-wide cap and gown event. My thesis professor, Dr. A, spoke about me to the small gathering just as his peers presented their own graduates. The day was a culmination of five years of sustained focus and hard work despite distractions and interruptions that mark every life.
Twenty years later, I connected with him via LInkedIn and wrote a thank you letter, not sure if he would receive it. Not only did he read, but he replied right away, thereby enhancing my respect for him even further.
Sharing an excerpt of our communication.
Post # 3: A debt that cannot be repaid
Dear Dr. A,
I wanted to get in touch with you to thank you for the impact you have made on my life.
My years at Baltimore represent some of the most memorable and special times of my life. I remember stepping into your office wearing a typical Indian cotton salwar kameez with my long braid hanging off my shoulder to enquire about the process of admission into the department. You were gracious and generous with your time, unfazed by the red dot on my forehead, or by my ignorance of the graduate school procedures. You were kind enough to grant me admission and the department generously supported me financially with tuition grants and stipends to enable me to complete my education without the burden of financial debt.
There are so many memories that I relive periodically, from that scary morning when I made my first podium presentation to an audience of about 100 at a graduate student meeting in Philadelphia to the final thesis defence in the Dean’s conference on the 7th floor. Learning to use a computer to learning American English, learning to drive (and park safely) in Baltimore to learning how to be a teaching assistant, it was a second kindergarten of my life, albeit one that began in adulthood.
Along with work there was enough play, specially with Dr. S’ quirky competitions involving carving pumpkins for Halloween and the popular Valentine’s Day cake baking contests. I can’t speak for other graduate programs, but ours was certainly the most fun. There were tough times as well, unwelcome transitions, some disappointments and heartbreaks, but the department felt like a family as we organized wedding showers, welcomed babies and celebrated jobs that followed graduations.
I obtained a Ph.D. under your guidance. These are not just letters appended to my name, but are proof of my commitment to the required period of study, indicating my willingness to embark on a life in science. The Ph.D. gave me special standing among peers and certified me as a learned person, a doctor of philosophy indeed. I could negotiate my salary, promotions and even obtain special discounts in retail stores (in India!). But the true wealth I amassed in my time at Baltimore was not material.
My years in Baltimore have informed not merely my career and professional choices but also personal ones. The impact that a teacher has on a student’s life surpasses academic boundaries and that has been my privilege as your student.
I chose to dabble in teaching for a few years in India and helped more than 30 student obtain a Master’s degree. Working with each of these young students took a huge toll on my time and energy and was frustrating at times. Now my former students write to me about their successes and transitions, both personal and professional. I feel honored to be included in their lives, long beyond the few years we interacted. In their words and their choices, I feel the pleasure of a new parent who adores her baby’s first independent steps. I understand that I have made a lasting impression on these youngsters who will be bolder and braver than I could ever be, who will go on to achieve their dreams and in some way, leave an impression on other young lives, far away from my gaze.
I know I have waited twenty years to put this in words but please believe me when I say that there are very few days that I do not experience a great peace as I express gratitude privately for these gifts that I enjoyed and took for granted, gifts of inclusion, of personal attention, of education and opportunities that were wholeheartedly given to me (and my fellow students) by you and the other faculty at Maryland.
Thank you for being my teacher, my academic guide, my mentor and role model. I left Maryland without financial debt but I owe a huge debt to the school. A student can never repay the debt she owes a teacher. The only way is to pay it forward. I hope I will live up to to the standards that I was privileged to have encountered and would like to seek your blessings as I move forward in life.
You have made my day! I was so happy to receive your letter and to learn what you have been doing since leaving Maryland. There are important intangible rewards for being an educator. I believe a letter like yours is the very best such reward a teacher can get. I feel deeply honored and humbled by your words. Thanks so much for your very kind and sweet letter. Those times you recall at Maryland were indeed good and wonderful, and we were honored to have you join our program. Talented students like you who leave our program and succeed in the world, as you have, make us look good! I wish you and your family the very best. L.A