Welcome, Bienvenido, Huānyíng (歡迎), Namasté (नमस्ते), Vanakkam (வணக்கம்) – These are the words I used to greet my students on their first day of class. And I asked those who speak other languages to teach me how to greet them.
We are proud to be an inclusive and welcoming educational institution. Nobody who comes knocking on our doors is denied an opportunity to learn for the wrong reasons. These are reasons irrelevant to the course work or the requirements to master it – reasons like ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation or identification, and even physical or mental challenges that get in the way of a full appreciation of the subject matter. We boast one of the best accommodation centers of all colleges in the country that goes out of its way to make sure that each of our students is given the greatest opportunity to learn. Equity is not only our interest and focus. It is our mission.
Yet, despite the lengths we go to, some students feel intimidated in class because they incorrectly perceive the subject matter as being the privilege of some majority of the population – sadly, a majority they don’t feel a sense of belonging to. Recent research  has shown that student success could improve by as much as 2.5% if an instructor was also perceived to be part of a minority. Sometimes during our instruction, we get so involved in the subject matter that we walk, talk and behave in the “majority” bearing, simply because that’s the bearing we ourselves are most accustomed to espousing during our daily lives. We forget that by doing so, a minority would feel that they’re being given foreign matter to imbibe and assimilate, a task far harder than if one is given material they feel a natural affinity for.
So this time, on Jan 9, 2017, I decided I would point out that Computer Science or Math is as universal as any other scholarly pursuit. Nobody has a better claim to it than anyone else. And to drive the point home, I decided that I would come to class dressed in my traditional Indian garb and lecture in it. What I’m wearing in the picture is called a Veshti in my native language, probably cognate with the Sanskrit term for clothing – Vastra (वस्त्र). In the North of India, it is often called a Dhoti. Besides being, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable and brilliant designs for clothing ever, it sends a strong signal to students in a Californian setting that their instructor is, or was at one point, a member of a minority population, and that didn’t prevent him from learning and enjoying one of the most beautiful subjects there is. If he can do it, then so can you!
Like the apparent simplicity that belies the tremendous sophistications of games like Chess and Go, both of which we owe to great ancient civilizations, the humble Veshti is a simple rectangular piece of cloth, but one which has highly condensed utility and elegance woven right into its fabric, as it were. It’s only variations are typically in the decorative stripes near its borders. And it is traditionally white or an off-white color that lets you quickly tell when it’s dirty and needs washing. By design, the Veshti keeps you warm in cold weather by maximizing skin-on-skin contact, cool in warm weather by maximizing airflow around your limbs, and transforms instantly in a fold from a full length article of clothing to one that’s half length to your knees. It’s easy to don, looks elegant and sophisticated, is utterly comfortable, supremely easy to wash, clean, shake and hang dry. You don’t need tips from Martha Stewart on how to fold it easily or store it compactly. Furthermore – and this is the feature I like most – one never has to worry about waist size when donning a Veshti – it’s literally a one-size-fits-all garment. Once you learn how to wrap it around yourself in one of many different ties, it stays put firmly until you take it off. Yet, sadly, despite my gushing praise of this amazing article of clothing, I don’t have enough of these to wear every day. I do, however, plan to grace the campus and my class with a Veshti as often as possible.
Just as “every student is unique and brings contributions that no one else can make” , every culture is unique and brings contributions that no other culture can make – a fact that I hope our incoming government will appreciate before they come to any hasty decisions about who is entitled a good American education. As Littlewood remarks in a recent movie about the mathematical genius Ramanujan, “Great knowledge comes from the humblest of origins” . Let us not deprive this great country of ours from realizing its full potential by shutting its doors.
The Veshti serves as a reminder to me, and hopefully an indication to my students, of the value we each bring to this wonderful country from our respective cultures, and how not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Hopefully, it also serves another important purpose – to our minority students – that the instructor also belongs to a minority group, at least temperamentally in the sense of feeling one of several belongings to, and that the subject he teaches belongs as much to one culture as another.
 Fairlie, R. W, Hoffman, F and OreoPoulos, P. (2014) A Community College Instructor like Me: Race and Ethnicity interactions in the classroom (American Economic Review, vol. 104, No. 8, pp. 2567-2591)
 Bain, K. (2012) What the best college students do. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, p.72)
 Kanigel, R. (1991) The man who knew infinity: A life of the genius, Ramanujan (C. Scribner’s, New York). Movie (2016) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0787524/