Dr. Ashwin Mahalingam, exudes amicability and has his share of tongue in cheek moments. Editors of Chennai 36 caught up with this dynamic teacher in his lair and here’s what the ‘wolf’ had to say-
What were your most memorable experiences as a student here?
I can’t possibly pick between instances because ever so many things are memorable to me from my student days. I dabbled a bit in cultural affairs but I think all alumni would agree when I say that hostel life is far by a person’s dearest experience here. In my time we had a system of Wing Cots. At the end of every wing, there was an extra cot placed. Students would throng to that one cot and sit all over it in large numbers. So many memories of mine are tied to those cots.
We heard that you were an avid quizzer and even won Lone Wolf once. Tell us a little about that.
If you ask me Lone Wolf was a bit of a surprise. I wasn’t seeded to win. I think I was lucky. I scraped through the semi-finals and somehow ended with a win. Obviously winning Lone Wolf was the highlight of my quizzing career. It used to be the holy grail of quizzing and the win shocked even me! Even outside of Lone Wolf though, the quizzing life was good fun. You got to meet a lot of new people.
What did the Saarang experience mean to you back then?
I was a part of the transition from Mardi Gras to Saarang. In reality, however, there wasn’t that much of a change. We worried over the open Indianised new name, Saarang and fretted, wondering if the turnout would still be good and if the participants would be quite as fun as the ones from previous years. But the transition was smooth. People all came.
In its very organization though, Saarang used to be different. IIT itself was a small community in our time. Our batch had only 359 students. Our biggest sponsor once was Pepsi and the budget then was five lakhs. Saarang was always highly anticipated even then, though. You made lots of friends and often kept in touch. The worst part, however was getting back to routine. I think you guys have a day off before the academics begin. We didn’t, we had a five day Saarang and it used to finish on a Sunday. The Monday morning A Slot was a big pain to attend and all we ever wanted to do was fall back into bed!
How was Stanford different from IIT?
Very different. They have a lot of schools. They offered you a wide variety of courses. The choices were far more. The teaching process is also very different there. Here you sort of come in ready for the scene. There, class participation counts for a lot. The class there was a lot more cosmopolitan. Here you would typically find a lot of middle class people from the same background. In my time, faculty there plugged into the real world a lot more often. That has only recently come into the IIT Teaching methodology. Stanford was also the top sports school in the US. There used to be a Sears Cup in sports and Stanford won the Sears Cup 10-15 years on the trot. The coach of the Stanford swimming team was the Olympic swimming coach. The guy from the Stanford team had won medals at the Olympics. Stanford had top class talent everywhere. You could actually attend a performance by someone who, in 3 days, was going to be playing at a New York rock concert and you can do it for free. Those were the kind of opportunities that were there. Having said that though, you will not get the same level of camaraderie there as you get here in the hostel. And to some extent if you were really interested in technical stuff you could get into it at a much better depth here than in Stanford. So there were plusses and minuses.
How did you decide to take up teaching as your profession?
It was Completely random. I had no intentions of teaching. A professor who taught me at IIT once said ‘Why don’t you come back to IIT?’ I hadn’t thought of it until then, but it was Chennai, and I had always wanted to come back. So this happened. Several decisions of mine are quite this random. My CG wasn’t that high. I was an 8 pointer. We didn’t have the job scene that you guys do. We didn’t have any organized placements. We had a dream job system. You would designate a dream job and then sit for several interviews until you got placed. However, after that, the only job you could sit for was your Dream Job Interview. The catch was that you never knew which companies would come. I was in Civil so I selected L&T as my dream job. They never came that year. Then I applied to Stanford for an MS. A few other companies didn’t work out. This did. In fact my advisor asked me to consider doing a PhD. It was the first time I had thought about that as well. It seemed inviting. So out of the blue, the plan to leave to Stanford was put to effect.
Any memorable teaching experiences here so far?
(laughs) I don’t know if I’m old enough to have memorable experiences just yet but teaching is fun. They tell me I have a heavy load here. But I just handle two courses – 7 hours a week. I have a slack attendance policy, so the troublemakers don’t come. The guys who come are the interested guys. Overall, it’s been a really good experience so far. I can’t really think of anything that was particularly memorable, though there was this one time when during Teacher’s Day some of my students got me a gift. I was very touched.
What would your message to today’s generation of IIT-ians be?
As a student you’ve gotten into IIT with whatever path you’ve taken but there are a variety of paths forward. So I urge you to recognize the existence of variety and flexibility to make better choices. You should be in a good position to grab opportunities in life – if you specialize too much on what you’re doing today, you may not be good enough to take up the opportunities that arise tomorrow. Thus you need to spend time balancing yourself out. We didn’t do that necessarily. I was involved in a couple of things and I was pretty well rounded but if I could go back I would probably do things a little bit differently. You need to be ready to face any opportunity the second it comes your way – be ever prepared. Have a constant work ethic – to quiz you need to keep up with things all the time, to excel in sport you need to consistently practice, to keep up your grades, you need to clock in the work. No matter what your vision is, you can’t really slack off for a period of time and then get back into the habit of working hard again. Most people who were burnt out after JEE and just gave up were not able to recover. Once you get into the habit of working hard and then that habit continues with you for life. Cultivate it.
Dr. Ashwin ‘Mash’ Mahalingam completed his B.Tech in Civil Engineering from IIT Madras in 1998. He went on to do a Masters and Ph.D in Civil Engineering from Stanford University.
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