Student Essay Contest

Against All Odds

2018 Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention

By: Selena Grover, Neuqua Valley High School (Naperville, Illinois)

Being a successful woman in any field requires tenacity and passion. Not only must you excel, you need to do so while battling everything working against you. A new country, a new marriage, motherhood–Dr. Manu Kaur balanced all of these simultaneously in her journey to fulfill her dreams. Dr. Kaur grew up in India, where she skipped first grade. To help her keep up, her father, an accountant, would sit with her and teach her math. She marveled at the way the numbers worked together to form solutions, and fell in love with the subject. Everything seemed to naturally click; it all came to her with ease. Once she began high school, she set a goal to become a professor in mathematics.
There are multiple requirements to teach at the collegiate level in India. First, Dr. Kaur had to obtain a bachelor’s, master’s, and MPhil degree in mathematics, which she did from the University of Delhi. She then had to complete a national entrance exam; she passed, and did so well that she was awarded a fellowship for further education. After completing the requirements, she began her first job as a mathematics lecturer at the University of Delhi. This was soon followed by marriage and the birth of her first daughter.
After 5 years teaching in Delhi, Dr. Kaur’s life changed. Her husband’s job called for a move to America. She saw this as an opportunity to obtain her Ph.D. from one of the best schools in the world, so she applied to schools in Illinois, where she expected to move. Dr. Kaur enrolled a few months later at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, eager to begin graduate school. Things changed once again just before she was scheduled to arrive in America. Her husband’s job changed, and he now had to work in Ohio. But Dr. Kaur was enrolled in graduate school and had no intention of giving up her dream. They came to a temporary solution–she would live in Illinois with her daughter, and her husband would come on the weekends, going back to Ohio for the weekdays.
Upon her arrival, Dr. Kaur was flustered. She had left her daughter in India with family for her first semester, so she could arrange everything. A 26 year old who had never left the country before, she did not know how to drive, spoke limited English, and had to live on her own. Once her daughter came, she enrolled her in Kindercare. She had to juggle the roles of single parent and student–she would attend class during the day, take care of her daughter in the evening, and study at night. All along, she kept her goal in mind.
Three years later, she and her daughter moved to Ohio to be with her husband. On the weekdays she would stay in Ohio, fulfilling her role as a homemaker–caring for her daughter, cooking for her husband, cleaning the house. On the weekends she would drive 4.5 hours to Illinois and stay with a friend. Once again she and her family moved, this time to Naperville, Illinois. From here it was a more manageable 2 hour commute to school. She wanted to continue learning but needed more money for daycare, so she began teaching as an adjunct–first at DePaul University and later at Benedictine University. By now, Dr. Kaur was losing her motivation. It had been six years, and she still had not gotten
her Ph.D. She had her job teaching as an adjunct and had settled into her life. On top of that, she was now pregnant with her second daughter. Then something came up that pushed her to finally complete her degree. A job for a full-time faculty member opened up at Benedictine University, where she already taught. Even though she did not have a doctorate, she was encouraged by the faculty to apply for the position. She went for her interview, now a few months into her pregnancy. The school loved her, and she was hired as a term faculty, with the caveat that as soon as she finished her Ph.D., she would be put on track for tenure. This was the spark that motivated her once again to finish her degree. Her second daughter was born in May. Four weeks later, Dr. Kaur took her mother-in-law and both of her daughters to Urbana-Champaign for the summer semester, reinvigorated with energy.
Each day she worked on her research, and would come home to help her mother-in-law care for her kids. When the summer ended she returned to Naperville, and began balancing school, work, and family once again. She would stay in her offices until 9 pm, simultaneously working on her dissertation and pumping breastmilk. All throughout the fall she worked, culminating with her defending her thesis in December 2001. She had done it. After 7 years, she had finally gotten her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Kaur still teaches at Benedictine University. She loves her job, and loves igniting her passion for math in others. Most of her research is in functional analysis, but in 2005 she designed a class on cryptography to make her research more accessible to her undergraduate students. They work with her in cryptology research–as she says, their younger minds catch on to patterns faster than hers does. She recently designed a math for liberal arts course, trying to get students not required to take math for their major to become interested in the topic once again.
If you go to the Benedictine University mathematics website, you will see a picture of Dr. Kaur doing what she loves most: teaching college kids. Sixteen years after completing her Ph.D., Dr. Kaur still holds the same passion for her job. No obstacle was too much to stop her from achieving her dream, a dream she is still living out today.
About the student:
I am currently a senior at Neuqua Valley High School. Math has always been my favorite subject, something I excel at. I am currently taking Calculus III through the University of Illinois as my math course. I am also involved in band and marching band, having played the flute for 7 years. I am planning on pursuing economics as my major in college next year, as it combines my interests with numbers, human psychology and decision making. I have known Dr. Manu Kaur since a young age, as she is a close family friend. I find her story inspiring, as it has taught me nothing is unachievable.