Purushothaman Damodaran, Ph.D. joined NIU in 2009 as an assistant professor in industrial and systems engineering (ISYE) and in 2012 was named chair of the ISYE department. His teaching career, which spans 25 years and four states started when he was a research assistant.
While he possesses a soft-spoken, quiet demeanor and a gentle persona, this Presidential Teaching Professorship Award winner has been an enormous influence on the success of the students in his classroom, not to be outdone by his influence on their personal lives outside of the classroom. He’s known for helping students with all types of support, such as the annual Thanksgiving lunch that he provides at his own expense, for 30-40 international students.
He is known among his students and colleagues in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET) for going above and beyond to help his students. In fact, one international student who suffered from emotional health issues was considering dropping out of the program and came to Damodaran. To ensure the student’s success, he offered individual instruction at the student’s home, accompanied the student to the hospital and grocery stores regularly. As a result, the student graduated and is now on the faculty at a college in his home country.
“Dr. Damodaran’s dedication to the success of his students is something you hear from students when asking about their experience in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology,” said Donald Peterson, Ph.D. dean of CEET. “We are fortunate to have Dr. Damodaran on our team of educators.”
Murali Krishnamurthi, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, of CEET’s Department of ISYE offered a perspective on Damodaran’s care for his students.
“He views teaching as more than just delivering instruction, curriculum development, and supervising students.” Krishnamurthi said. “He values the whole student and goes above and beyond the call of duty to help students not only in their course work but also in their lives so that they graduate as well-rounded individuals.”
Echoing this sentiment, Associate Professor of ISYE Christine Nguyen added, “He treats everyone in his community as his family, and makes sure they are taken care of,” she said. “(Students) find comfort in confiding with Purush. He is regarded as someone who will never break your trust, will keep your secrets and is incredibly resourceful.”
Damodaran grew up in India where his father, uncle and aunt were all teachers. They imparted upon him his teaching philosophy to “become your best possible self and give the gift of time to others.” From there he developed his own three-pronged strategy for developing socially-responsible and competent students: kindle curiosity to learn, inculcate a fail forward attitude, and be a life coach.
He instills this strategy by teaching his students that “success is defined by the grit with which we get up every time we fall and keep moving in the right direction,” Damordaran said. “Fail forward is my favorite mantra for my students and I teach them resilience by being there for them every step of the way.”
His successful teaching philosophy is something with which former student and alumna Molly Schultz concurred. “As a teacher, Dr. Damodaran is respected and favored by many students even while teaching some of the most challenging subjects. His classes are not easy because he has high expectations for his students and never underestimates what they are capable of,” Schultz said.
She went on to say that Damodaran demonstrates his concern for students by always being available to answer questions or help with studies, even going so far as providing his mobile phone number to students.
For showing care for his students and for his excellence in teaching, he consistently earns high marks on student evaluations from the heavy teaching load that he takes on each semester in addition to being the chair of the department. Damodaran has successfully integrated teaching and research by engaging 129 of his students on 81 sponsored research projects worth over $5 million. And although he has accomplished so much throughout his career at NIU including supervision of 14 master’s theses, 75 master’s graduate projects, and 67 master’s papers along with serving on the committees of 15 other graduate theses, this is not how he defines his success.
“I feel privileged to teach my students and I see that life has come a full circle now. I have graduates who invite me to their weddings, housewarming, and baby showers – a yardstick which measures my success better than any student evaluation as this was the metric I grew up with,” Damodaran said.