Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This is not Poetry. It's about me..

Here is something I wrote about myself for my 'intro' to the Little Rock Rotary Club:

I am Srini Ramaswamy, the chairperson of UALR’s Computer Science department. I have been in the US since 1990, 4 years as a student, 1 year as a post-dog! at Austin – sort of trial by fire – for academia, 13 years in various positions in academia, and our 4th year here in AR. Rama, my wife is a teacher at the e-stem charter school – math/physics/engineering - obviously with that combination you know she is way smarter than me, I just happened to get lucky with a PhD behind my name. We have a 7½ -yr old son – Shreyas, the ½ being very important. I also own a software consulting company. Through the company, I align and help returning entrepreneurs to India build opportunities to support small-business outsourcing needs here. I also provide expert service consultation and managed outsourcing solutions for software development, infrastructure support and HR needs.

Since the Internet leaves only a few unknowns about me, let me recount some things about myself that are not on Google / elsewhere - mainly from my first 6 months in the US. I came here a wide-eyed 20 something - like Lucy’s cousin Ernie from TN – our names rhyme! But unlike him, I adapted and stayed put! When I left India, knowing no one here, my father gave me one piece of advice: He doesn’t advice me anymore on anything – says I have outgrown that need – which I am not sure I have! He said, you are going to a country that values Freedom – Remember that freedom does not mean your ability to do anything without regard to your surroundings; it provides you the opportunity to learn, pursue and articulate your interests without affecting the environment and the people around you.

Anyway, I landed as a total ‘geek’ – many still consider me one – with a clothesline (for drying my clothes), a huge lock (for securing my front doors – for an apartment I didn’t have), an iron that didn’t work here (220V) and no idea when I can call or visit family – all my worldly stuff in 2 boxes! Not very different from many of your ancestors – I tell my students! After two months of non-stop notice-board hunting beginning 7 am every morning – I landed my first job on campus - at $3.80 an hour! We were quite naive then. Two things awed many of us newbie’s – monster trucks on the road and pedestrian crossings. A student who landed with me from Bangalore – note Bangalore – now the envy of many cities world-wide – then a sleepy town - thought with cruise control, truck drivers can just go back and sleep whenever they felt like! Hence trucks ruled the roost on America’s big roads where the concept of ‘nights’ was non-existent - elsewhere in the world everything closed for 5-6 hrs – true utopia at least in our rustic minds! The concept of a ‘pedestrian crossing’ was just as awesome and jaw dropping experience – vehicles and people obeyed traffic signals, with no cops at the intersection! These folks must be automated machines! Univ of Louisiana at Lafayette was adjacent to a big road – Johnston street. Early on someone noticed that this guy from Bangalore run back to where he started from when it began to flash the ‘don’t walk’ sign!

Talk about staring on the wrong foot… Having caught up on what classes are offered, what to take etc., my 3rd day at Lafayette - Aug 15th – the Indian independence day – I was happy and sad at the same time – difficult feeling to express you know – like parents sending their kids away to college here! I decided to approach a lady professor and wanted to ask her about testing out of one of the classes so I could take an upper level class! Bright and early I knocked on her door, went in and began.. Good morning Ms. so and so! I would like for you to allow me to skip one of the classes you are teaching, I ….. and as I was speaking.. Dr. so and so! she exploded, I earned it! Was scared stiff … Ah! I thought to myself. Didn’t know doctoral degrees came with a sex change too – I know Mr., what’s this Dr.? But thanks to her for challenging everything about me - right from the way I addressed people – it created a steely will within me to be successful - to rethink, stand firm and be a Dr. myself – she lit the fire early on! From then on, I became, and I still am, Srini – to colleagues and students alike – no more, no less! Carrying a rebellious teenager attitude mostly got me into more trouble that good (still does)! But after being a few years here and seeing some of the persistent hurdles for women, I do understand the reason for her explosion! Speaking of accents, I spent half of my 1st semester wondering if I were in a history class – Route… pronounced ROOT as I had learnt it - was pronounced ROUT all the time! Another teacher was always in ‘short’ shorts – just seemed so funny to us.

Also learnt about capitalism and business very early on - from the telecom companies – if someone is here from Alltel / Verizon – no offense please - they squeezed me out of every nickel I earned! I had to work 3-4 hours to speak to my family for 2-3 minutes. Still couldn’t get through to my Grandmother – who was close to me - for a whole month – before she died just before thanksgiving time during my first year here. She wanted me to postpone my trip by a year, I declined! Such experiences have made me a proponent for technology that brings ‘reliable’ and ‘affordable’ services to the people – the needy people. Like ConnectArkansas here. 18 yrs ago for me, it was the reliability of the US postal service – still remember my PO box at Lafayette - 44266 – my time-space machine – a pigeon-hole connection with my family on the other side of the world - used to write three-page letters back home – once every 1-2 weeks – to dad/mom and Rama – now my wife (then my sweetheart since 9th grade) - Exactly 3, 8.5x11 pages, both front and back and all over left no space empty, no margins etc. - as that was the exact weight I could stuff for 45 cents of international postage to India.

America was a true melting pot experience for me. But to my mother – now that is a different story. She still chastises me for flaunting family traditions; we married in a weekend drive-by wedding at Dallas after my PhD – we didn’t have enough money for Vegas I used to tell her. Now she knows about Vegas - took her to Vegas some years ago! Without any family and only a few friends! That was unheard of, for her we are still kinda run-aways! What do my students think? In 98-99, I realized my students had made my name a ‘verb’ –being ‘Srinied’ they said! But I understand their affection through Facebook now –best scientist, kindest and most loyal person, etc. are my strengths, my weakness: Nicest person! –that’s what counts, right? – facebook popularity! Guess many of those who voted haven’t been ‘Srinied’ yet!

As a family, we try to do what we can to give back. Rama has been involved with the Women’s foundation of AR and their middle school girls of promise events. She jumped at the teaching opportunity at E-STEM. I helped to build a small elementary school in rural India for children of migrant workers – folks who can’t own land themselves – in a deep country location - where big multinationals wouldn’t fund – lacks PR opportunity. Given that my father grew up studying under street lights and carried firewood for kilometers to earn 25 paise (a quarter) – for cooking not for the fireplace – just to sustain his passion for education – I believed it was the right thing to do for kids in a similar situation now. To honor our parents and their support of our education, we have also created a “Creative Applications of Technology’ endowment both at Tennessee Tech – my previous university, and here at UALR to support project choices by students that can positively affect and address some societal / business need through the creative use of technology (take the hint – it’s an endowment here, locally at UALR). Honestly, more than us, we are happy to see Shrey, grow up showing care and concern. For his 7th birthday party earlier this year, upon our suggestion he requested to receive checks for his school –to buy additional classroom materials to share with his friends. Glad he is growing up well!

Let me end by quoting Mahatma Gandhi – Be the change you want to see in the world! Given Rotary’s motto – service above self – it was a natural decision for me to join your fold! Thanks to Michelle for introducing me to this group. Being the first person in my family to see the inside walls of a college, if I could succeed, I am sure many others can! Together, we can help today’s Arkansan children become tomorrows’ Arkansawans – you listen to KUAR, don’t you?

Again, just call me Srini! Or like a customer service rep once put it in a marketing mail to me after a sales call, Mr. FREE ME. I look forward to getting to know every one of you!