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Visiting Scholar from India Observes American Education at Davidson

Visiting Scholar Geetha Sridharan
Because she loves people, visiting scholar Geetha Sridharan has shunned her carrel in the basement of the library, and instead studies - and chats -- for about six hours a day at tables on the main floor.

This family-centered economist and academic dean at Stella Maris College in Madras, India, says she's thriving in the Davidson family, and wants to meet as many people as possible during her year abroad. She feels very secure and comfortable here, enjoying the fact that students smile as they help her with the heavy doors of the library, and people almost always greet her when they make eye contact. "I've never lived alone in my life, but I feel very secure here. I feel like I've lived here all my life," she said gratefully.

Many of her new friends get an invitation to come to her apartment so she can cook them an Indian lunch. It's her first sabbatical in a 23-year teaching career, and she's enjoying both the rest and the chance to set her own course each day. "Every day is an experience," she said. "I meet people and keep learning."

She credits her landlady, Ann White, with successfully helping her meet people in the community. Job Thomas, head of the South Asian Studies program, has helped her feel equally at ease within the college. Thomas characterized Stella Maris College as the leading college for women in Madras. It enrolls 2,200 students and is run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. He added that Sridharan will undoubtedly become a valuable resource for Davidson faculty and students in India in future years, since our semester abroad program is based in Madras.

Her visit to Davidson is sponsored by the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, which has sponsored two previous scholars at Davidson. The program currently funds 17 scholars from Asian nations at colleges and universities across the country.

A Teacher and a Student

In Madras, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate students courses in development of economic doctrine, environmental economics, and women's studies. The latter is an important field in India, where a tremendous social transition is being fueled by women who earn money by learning new skills.

"It's amazing," she commented, "You find women who can't read or write, but are eager to work at home generating a small income for themselves."

Government loans allow them to buy a loom or raw materials. Her own college is involved in facilitating a successful dairy cooperative for women who live near Madras. She commented, "There is a lot of hope among women in India now who want to make a better life for their children. My thesis is that women will be the agent of socioeconomic change in my country."

She is happy to find that many American women are able to balance service to family in their homes with employment outside the home, and believes they are not as driven by economic incentive as Indian women. She is puzzled, though, why many Americans feel guilty of their relative wealth, and advises them to take pride in what they have accomplished. She also finds Americans very concerned about the country's leadership role in the world, as evidenced by conversations with many new concerned friends during the recent border and nuclear incidents between India and Pakistan.

Experiences at the Pines have also impressed her with how older Americans take care of themselves in their later years. She said older Indians almost always count on their children for support. That is beginning to change, she said, but there is not yet a culture of retirement living for old people there. "Homes for the aged in India are almost always for the poor," she said.

Sridharan audited three courses this semester - David Martin's statistics and Earl Edmondson's contemporary history, as well as auditing a course on development with Peter Hess. She also remarked at the work ethic of students. "Student actors in 'Cabaret' were in class with me, and they were there the day of the performance and the day after, that is amazing to me," she said.

The Future

Her studies this year are directed toward a project in health care of Native Americans. She plans to spend the month of January near Santa Fe, N.M., in a Pueblo community. She will also be traveling with a friend to a professional meeting in Galveston, Tex., to deliver a paper, and plans to spend New Year's Eve in New York with a cousin.

She looks forward to hosting many of her new friends in Madras in the future, and to showing them the rapid changes there. "Madras is growing vertically and horizontally," she said. "It is a classic example of India in unplanned transition. I would like to show friends how the villages near the city are being swallowed up into suburbs. And mostly I would like to show them my family."

She has lived her whole life in Madras and has many, many close relatives all over town. Her husband died about a year ago, and she now lives in a "collective" family with her mother, son, and daughter. Until her return, she looks forward to continued association with Davidsonians. She said, "I find Davidson is a very nice place. This is not the America I thought I'd see. I find it is like a very ideal society."

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