Loyola Magazine

Seeing the other side of challenge

Civil war and an arranged marriage in Bangladesh led Dipa Sarkar-Dey, Ph.D., to the U.S., where she found a new career and a new life

Dipa Sarkar-Dey, Ph.D., was a teenager growing up in Dhaka when her country became engaged in a brutal civil war.

She didn’t realize then that the chaos and instability of war that characterized her childhood would be the first of many challenges presented in her life, and that she would have to find ways to persevere.

After nine months of fighting between East and West Pakistan, with the exodus of more than 10 million refugees and the displacement of 30 million civilians, Bangladesh was declared an independent republic.

During the civil war, Sarkar-Dey’s father, a government employee, was subjected by the Pakistani government to witness the torture of his own people. He was so traumatized by the violence being used to solicit information that he confided in a trusted brigadier general. He was told he would be protected, and that the officers forcing him to witness these acts of brutality would be killed if they continued to harass him. Despite these assurances, he feared for his family’s safety and security.

When independence was declared in 1971, Sarkar-Dey was a 19-year-old student at the University of Dhaka. Although she loved chemistry, she was particularly talented in mathematics—no surprise coming from a long line of math scholars, beginning with her grandfather—and she was steered by her father to pursue the subject in order to secure a good job after graduation.

Her father was doing what he thought best to secure her future when he arranged his daughter’s marriage to a professor of statistics at the University of Dhaka.

“One of the conditions of our arranged marriage was that I finish my education,” she said. “I was, in a way, lucky that my husband and his parents encouraged me to continue my studies.”

A year after they were married, Sarkar-Dey was an undergraduate student and her husband was still teaching at Dhaka University when they welcomed a daughter, the first of their two children.

“I studied while my husband was teaching full time. I woke up at 4 a.m. I had a schedule until 10 at night of when to study, when to take care of and feed my baby, all while he was working,” she remembered.

She finished her degree and was working as a lecturer at Dhaka University when her son was born.

“I realized to do well in my field, I needed a Ph.D.,” she said. “My husband was in the same position, so we started applying to programs in foreign countries: in the U.K., in Canada, and in the United States.”

Both were accepted to Johns Hopkins. Her husband immigrated to Baltimore and began his doctoral studies, while Sarkar-Dey remained in Bangladesh for 12 months to teach and care for their young children before she packed up their house in Dhaka and moved her family overseas.

A real shock

“When I came to Baltimore, it was a real shock to me,” she said. At 26 years old, the full-time student and young mother was in a foreign land. Everyone she knew and could call on for help was 8,000 miles away.

Then there was the language barrier, which she had not expected: “I could read and write English, because we learned English in school, but I was not able to speak it fluently. I had never heard most of the common phrases used here. When people were speaking quickly and laughing, I had no idea what they were saying.”

As a student at Johns Hopkins, she would copy the teachers’ lecture notes, and then go home and teach herself the lessons by cross-referencing them with her textbooks.

“The first couple of years were really tough,” she said.

Still, she described her first few months in the United States in a positive light, and the people in Baltimore, including her fellow doctoral students and the professors, as kind.

“One of my professors said to me one day, ‘Dipa, I know this is really difficult. Bring your children to my office. It’s not a problem. You can study here.’ When you face challenges, there are people to help you—if you let them. If you do not have anyone to lean on, it is really hard.”

Breaking the barrier

It was during the last two years of her doctoral program that Sarkar-Dey began teaching at Loyola as a part-time faculty member.

Soon after earning her degree, there was a vacancy in the mathematics department for a tenure-track assistant professor. She applied and was hired to teach full time.

“When I came here as a tenure-track faculty in 1986, I didn’t have any interaction with the faculty or the University as a whole,” she said.

“I was scared. There were 10 people in my Ph.D. program at Hopkins. We were all very close—and all from different countries. But Loyola in 1986 was pretty homogeneous,” she explained. “I have an accent, and I was afraid to speak at our department meetings, to interrupt the flow of conversation.”

It was during an annual review that the former chair of her department questioned her anti-social behavior. He advised Sarkar-Dey to speak up, to get more involved, and to get to know her colleagues—if for nothing else than so they could vouch for her during her upcoming tenure application process.

“He encouraged me, and so I started speaking at department meetings and talking to the other faculty. Then Loyola started a multicultural affairs committee,” she said. “The support was always there, but I didn’t know that because I was keeping quiet in my own cubicle. You have to break that barrier.”

The once shy professor from Dhaka has chaired the department of mathematics and statistics since 2006.

“The difference at Loyola is the personal touch. Wherever you go on this campus, everyone has a smile on their face, and they embrace you,” she said of her years here.

Sarkar-Dey’s career at Loyola spans three decades, during which she has taught hundreds of sections of mathematics and moderated Pi Mu Epsilon, the mathematics honor society.

In 1995 she was awarded a Fulbright grant, which sent her to Nairobi, Kenya, to teach at Kenyatta University for 10 months, “the first time in my life I was traveling by myself. And I loved it.” It was there she met Pope John Paul II.

In 2007 she participated in an Ignatian pilgrimage, traveling to Spain and Italy with faculty from Loyola, St. Joseph’s University, and the College of the Holy Cross, learning about the history of the Jesuits and Catholicism.

“When I was applying to go on the pilgrimage, I learned a lot about the Society of Jesus, and I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is a really amazing group of people,” she said. “And there are so many similarities between my religion, Hinduism, and Catholicism—in finding God in everything and within yourself, especially.”

Sarkar-Dey said she has loved learning and teaching in the United States: “One thing I love about this country is the education system. You see, in Bangladesh, we study in order to get a job, not to get an education. Loyola provides an education; Loyola students become intellectual. You know, cura personalis is not just about educating the whole person for our students—it is actually about educating the whole institution.”

“The most challenging thing”

One day several years ago, Sarkar-Dey woke up and made a decision.

“After coming here and living here for so many years, I finally decided I wanted some peace in my life,” she said. After 36 years of marriage, she told her husband she was unhappy. They separated. “It was, for me, the most challenging thing. It was a very courageous step after 36 years, because I thought about it for so many years, but never had the courage.”

Sarkar-Dey remarried four years ago. She has two grandchildren and says she is happier now than she’s ever been.

“We all need challenges in life, for if your life is very smooth, you are unable to see the other side,” she says. “Recognize the challenge in your life, and try to overcome the circumstances. Don’t shy away from it.”

“In my life, I did not have many choices; not nearly as many as young people have today. There was always one choice—and a challenge that presented itself to me. And to move forward, I had to overcome it. There was one path, and I had to take it.”