Every year in March, West Valley College joins in acknowledging National Women’s History Month. This year, along with President Barack Obama who in his proclamation reminds us that “when women succeed, America succeeds,” the college partook by holding a tea. Many students, faculty and administrators participated in, as The National Women’s History Project titled the theme for 2014, “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment” and honoring “the extraordinary and often unrecognized determination and tenacity of women” who have stood against “social convention and often legal restraints” in order to create “a legacy that expands the frontiers of possibility for generations to come. Dr. Avantika Rohatgi was the feature speaker and guest of honor.
Certainly, Dr. Rohatgi is a focused woman who has demonstrated steadfast endurance, character, courage, and commitment as a mother, educator, and community leader. Currently, she teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Jose State University. She was born in India and completed her doctoral work in American Literature from the renowned Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India. Then, she was awarded the prestigious Rotary International Scholarship for pursuing graduate studies in the United States. That led her to complete a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics at Indiana University, Bloomington. She also holds a Masters in British Literature. Clearly, Dr. Rohatgi is passionate about learning and teaching.
In her talk, “And Still I Rise,” Dr. Rohatgi shared how growing up in a sheltered culture where decent women “seldom made history,” and then emigrating half-way across the world (first to Indiana and then to California) strengthened her mission to inspire students—especially women—to speak their minds and to participate deliberately in changing the world. She started her talk by describing her childhood in a loving family, then she told about the joys of her academic high achievements, her marriage, and becoming a mother. But after leaving her family and friends in India, after emigrating and building a life in the United States, she experienced the deepest of personal disappointments: divorce. Dr. Rohatgi said:
I sat up and began listing my assets. What did I have now? a) two hands and two feet, b) my education. Yes, they had taken everything away from me, but they could not steal the one valuable asset that I had collected over the years. My knowledge. This is one wealth no one can take from you and of which the more you give, the more it multiplies. Yes I had plenty of that wealth. I was rich.
Indeed, her education, resilient spirit and resourceful outlook, nourished and motivated her to finish raising her son and move on. She found a new teaching job and started life again.
I joined my new position. I had no money to visit counselors or trauma centers, but I had my son and my belief in what my parents had taught me. I decided to stop waiting for the storms to pass and learned to dance in the rain. I took a loan and sent my son back to college. I immersed myself with my students. I shared their joys and sorrows. I baked for them, listened to their stories, attended shows with them, threw tailgate parties for them. We told ghost stories around bonfires, rooted together at home games, carved pumpkins and decorated Christmas trees together. They taught me the American way of life and I taught them about the world—its pleasant and unpleasant realities.
Eventually, productive opportunities opened in California, and today Dr. Rohatgi has found peace and a new purpose in teaching. Her classes are infused with all concerns pertaining to human rights, especially those that impact women most directly. She has transformed hardship into personal and professional rewards!
I sit down on my desk and my eyes well up with tears of gratitude and fulfillment. I have finally arrived. This is where I belong. “As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the world.” And this is just the beginning. Thank you, Virginia Woolf. Thank you, Mom and Dad for giving me the gift of education and instilling in me the courage of my convictions.
Dr. Avantika Rohatgi is also involved in the Stanford University Global Studies program’s Stanford Human Rights Education Initiative (SHREI) where she has been an invited guest speaker at their annual symposium. To review her Prezi presentation click on “From Passive Polemics to Proactive Partisanship: Pedagogical Strategies to Promote Human Rights in the English Classroom. She is the editor of Global Rights and Perceptions, a collection of essays that highlight the many ways in which human rights are being violated.