May 19, 2004

Networking with the IITK Alumni

Tonight I went to an IITK alumni event that was hosted at MIT. Professor Keniston (who has been giving the classes on Indian culture that I never seem to be able to make) originally planned to go to the event himself, but it turned out that he was unable to go, so the MIT India coordinator (Aditi) decided that I should take his place. As I am not an IITK alum and I wouldn't know anyone there, I was hesitant to accept the ticket, but Aditi convinced me to go and said that I could always just leave if it got too weird.

For some reason, one of my biggest fears about going to these things is that I won't wear the right clothes. This is somewhat ironic, in that (1) I have no qualms about wearing pajamas to school, and (2) even if I wear the right clothes, I'm still going to stick out as the only white person in the room. I ultimately went with khaki pants, a sports coat, and tie which put me pretty much in the middle of the spectrum which included everything from denim to from what I took to be traditional, cultural Indian garb.

I got to the event promptly at 5:30, at which point there were about four people and at least a dozen empty tables. I met a retired IIT professor, a young alumnus, and a current student (Jyoti). The first two seemed to actually know other alumni, so as people started to filter in, they left the table to go meet them. However, Jyoti seemed to know about as many people as I did, so I talked to her all evening so she could answer all of my questions about life at IIT.

Some other people introduced themselves to me (probably thinking, "When the hell did this kid graduate from IIT?"), and after I explained to someone that I was going to IITK for the summer on exchange, he said, "Oh, then there's someone who you have to meet!" He introduced me to Dorothy Dahl, who is the wife of the late Professor Norman Dahl at MIT who was one of the "founding fathers" of MIT's exchange program with IITK. Apparently, Norman and Dorothy lived in India (with their small children) from 1962-1964 to oversee the exchange program (which included students from other big name universities like Princeton and Michigan, at the time).

Apparently, the Dahls enjoyed their trip to India very much and Dorothy had returned there many times. She told me that she expected that one of the most difficult things for me would be dealing with the poverty that I would see in India. I asked her if, after going to India so many times, she ever got used to it. Her response was, "When a mother throws the stump of her child's deformed hand at you...well, no, you can never get used to something like that." It was truly amazing, though Mrs. Dahl is in her 80s, she speaks clearly and vividly of her time in India.

Things finally got started at 7:30 (i.e., after I had already been there for two hours). And by "things," I don't mean dinner -- I mean speeches. Mrs. Dahl spoke first and she relayed the tales of how her husband flew to India with some other professors in the early 60s to check things out and to try to decide if an exchange program would work out. She also told the story of how the first IBM computer came to IITK, along with some other firsts for IIT Kanpur (IITK was only founded in 1962, so the Dahls were basically there from the beginning).

After Mrs. Dahl spoke, the Director of IITK, Dr. Dhande, spoke for awhile. He was funny and enthusiastic, so I enjoyed his talk very much. The majority of his presentation was a slideshow of all the new things going on at IITK. Just like MIT, they have a lot of construction going on, as well as a new (air-conditioned!) computer science building where I will likely be working this summer! When Dr. Dhande finished (around 8:30), the emcee said that they would give Dr. Dhande a short break while we got dinner.

As it turned out, what followed was an open floor discussion between Dr. Dhande and the alumni. This went on while they were calling up tables to grab buffet dinner, so it was difficult for Dr. Dhande to hold a discussion over the noise of everyone shuffling all around and eating. Honestly, I thought that the whole thing was somewhat comic in that Dr. Dhande would basically be shouting across the room to answer the person's question while all of these people would be walking inbetween them.

I overheard that this was one of many alumni stops for Dr. Dhande across the U.S., and I started to feel bad for him that he would have to go through this ordeal every night. Basically, he has to stand there while alumni yell at him, and in the meantime, his dinner is sitting there getting cold! I suppose that Dr. Dhande had grown accustomed to this ordeal, as he seemed to handle himself pretty well.

Aditi told me that I should introduce myself to Dr. Dhande, but unfortunately, I never got the chance. The Q&A session was still going strong at 9:30, and there was no end in sight. As I had been there for four hours at that point, I really couldn't take it anymore, so I excused myself and decided to leave. Now I'm just going to try to introduce myself to Dr. Dhande in person when I get to Kanpur.

Posted by Michael at May 19, 2004 09:30 PM

Posted by: kathy on May 29, 2004 at 7:49PM: