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June 24, 2022


Communications and Outreach Manager, Jenna Maurer, spoke with Manish Bansal, Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. Bansal describes his motivations as a first-generation college student and the importance of the journey in life, not just the successes or outcomes. 2022 Cycle One students can look forward to an engaging seminar with Professor Bansal in July. 

You grew up in India and are first-generation to go to college yourself, what [was] that experience like for you?

It has a story more related [to] my mother, [who] grew up in a very small village in India. In order to go to 11th and 12th grade, you have to go to a neighboring city. She was among the top candidates, but [her family] decided not to send her. This [unfulfilled] dream inspired her to ensure me and my brother work on our education and proceed further. 

I finished my undergrad [in India] and then explored further in the U.S. My biggest challenge was when I had to pass 10th grade – that was the limit in terms of my parents. Thereafter, it was freedom. Oftentimes, disadvantages are advantages and advantages are disadvantages. 

Having that disadvantage of being first-generation meant that once you completed 10th grade, you did more than your mother had done. So it was about [continuing] but with less pressure?

Professor Bansal at his Ph.D. Graduation With his Mother Over his Left Shoulder

Exactly. The limitation was not there. When I finished my Ph.D., I had my parents visit. My mother told me, “now I don’t get those dreams of completing exams anymore.” Her dream was fulfilled.

Virginia Tech has its own program where they invite girls from different high schools interested in getting into engineering. We conduct seminars for them to explain what this domain is, so they can [decide] what they would like to pursue.

But, there are still girls who are not able to execute those dreams. That is what keeps me moving and that’s why I reached out to Aspire as well.

What do you see as how Aspire will fill the gaps that you didn’t have, or that your mother didn’t have, for youth around the world?

One aspect of being first-generation was the lack of information. The presence of people from different domains is important. It helps the next generation see this person did this, so I can. When people start interacting, they start getting to know more than all these barriers. They start seeing that my attitude is like this person – irrespective of the person’s race or color – so I think I can do it.

Right, it’s that hope they get. It could be your parents or another mentor that changes your mind and path. That is what I love about the professors that speak to our students – they help them open their minds.

Even when I’m teaching, it is not just about the content, it is about the vision – this is what can be done. That is what I try to share. In the seminar, I try and showcase the connection of this work.

Could you give a brief introduction about what you do and what the students should be excited about if they [attend] your session?

The key aspect is the application of basic linear algebra that we study in high school in solving various problems that we encounter in our day to day life. We want to utilize our resources in a more efficient way. [From] airline bookings and the routings of airplanes [to] how UPS is delivering all the parcels, these problems can be nicely mathematically formulated. 

I would like to share why exactly one is studying linear algebra, what could be the advances. 

With the stuff I’m doing with the optimization, I never took any course in my undergrad. I read about it through Wikipedia, and it started from interest. I had no idea about these applications.

[Even with a] passion for something, or an idea, a lot of students think, “what do I do with this passion?” Having mentors in their life is very helpful. Do you have advice for youth or something you wish someone told you?

If you don’t know this [a] route and have a passion, people around you may say it doesn’t make sense. Now, I can see that not everyone around you knows everything.

Success is not a destination, it’s a journey – and the fun is in the journey. I try to take inspiration from the younger me. The guy who said let’s go to the U.S. and explore. It was all the journey.

I think that is great advice. If you are focused on [one path], you [don’t enjoy] or learn from the journey. When you focus on the journey, you become a lifelong learner – is this what you would hope for youth today?

I tell students [that] this is my perspective, I just want to share it with you. This is not what you have to do.


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