Rare honour for caring Sikh professor

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Prof. Sukhmander Singh with students from Santa Clara University – Photo: SCU website

By Deborah Lohse | United States |

Each year, graduates of Santa Clara University’s civil engineering program receive a personally signed paperback book, Monkey Wisdom, from the elder statesman of that department— Sukhmander Singh, who has been teaching at SCU for 36 years.

The book contains fable-like stories—most featuring monkeys—that Singh has told to his students over the years whenever he thought they needed a reminder about the merits of focus, perseverance, or personal values. A story about a donkey stuck in a well with dirt being shoveled on him, for instance, turns into a lesson about being able to rise above challenges that rain down in every life. Having grown up in a Sikh Indian farming family which never expected him to go to college—much less get a Ph.D. and become a beloved professor—it’s a lesson Singh feels deeply, and wants to pass on to students.

“I describe him as a ball of sunshine,” said Vanessa De La Rosa, a junior civil engineering student and assistant to Singh. “He can really tell when students are going through a hard time, or when they are stressed out. He knows what they need to hear.”

That unceasing care for his students by Singh—who teaches geology and geotechnical engineering—touched one family so much that they recently donated $3 million to create the Sukhmander Singh Endowed Professorship in Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering. The professorship will be awarded to a Santa Clara educator who—like Singh—has distinguished themselves academically and exemplifies the highest ideals and values of a Jesuit education, among other qualifiers.

Santa Clara currently has over 50 endowed professorships, including the Wilmot J. Nicholson Family Professorship, which Singh held for 25 years. Most endowed professorships are named in honor of generous donors or former professors—not typically for professors living and working at SCU.

“It’s extremely rare for a professor to be honored in this way,” said Elaine Scott, dean of the School of Engineering. “It goes to show the impact of our profession on students can be very long lasting and profound.”

“An endowed professorship is a tremendous validation of the quality of education our students are receiving,” said Ed Ryan, acting provost of Santa Clara University. “It will help ensure continuity of excellence in civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering course offerings for generations to come.”

Among his peers, Singh is known as the consummate faculty “connector” on campus—championing new professors, especially those from other countries, and advocating for engagement and cultural awareness between U.S.- and foreign-born professors.

Nam Ling, who now chairs the computer science and engineering department, became friends with Singh when both were younger professors in relatively small departments. Singh would actively support his friend, including nominating him for awards, and would encourage all new faculty members, especially foreign-born, to engage with their peers and get noticed for their work.

“Many foreign-born professors are low-key, soft-spoken, and may not speak up if something is wrong or not quite right,” says Ling, whose department now has the largest enrollment in the School of Engineering. “Sukhi is a bit different— more outspoken, willing to speak up.”

For instance, Singh would regularly point out when a qualified person was being overlooked for professional opportunities, and raised concerns if those denied promotions, awards or leadership opportunities don’t receive the honest feedback they need to improve.

“We should be truthful, but also diplomatic and kind,” reasoned Singh. “It will help people.”

Read the full story, ‘An Endowed Honor’ (Santa Clara University website), here.





RELATED STORY:

Sikh luminary Baba Iqbal Singh passes away at 96 (Asia Samachar, 29 Jan 2022)



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