JMU professor combats stigma and ignorance through education



© Bradley Striebig Photography

Dr. Smita Mathur is an Associate Professor in JMU’s College of Education whose research agenda empowers local teachers to use the unique strengths of their students communities to make required curriculum more interesting, inspiring and memorable.

“Every child has strengths that they are bringing to class whether they realize it or not,” says Smita. For example, “a father who repairs cars could speak to the class regularly about changing the oil, oil viscosity, air pressure in tires, the purpose of antifreeze and other car maintenance and repair issues. As the teacher weaves the father’s lessons into the curriculum to help the students see it in practical terms, his son’s respect for him grows.”

“Similarly, a mother who works in poultry packaging could talk to the class about quality control, temperature, decay, freezing and issues related to loading chicken trucks, such as how many chickens fit into each cage, how many are on the truck and how long it takes to fill a truck. Many science and math lessons are covered.”

“By harnessing these funds of knowledge, we make learning authentic for the children we are teaching,” says Smita. “It’s good for the community because it takes away from stigmas in certain jobs and builds mutual respect between ethnicities and cultures.” And, because schools are underfunded and don’t have enough teachers,  we need to use resources already available in the community.  Ruthie Bosh, a professor in JMU’s School of Education is already doing work with this concept of “Funds of Knowledge.”

Smita moved to the Harrisonburg area from University of Southern Florida (USF) just two years ago. As an Associate Professor in the field of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education, she brings a wealth of experience in meeting the educational needs of economically disadvantaged students who come from diverse backgrounds. After living all over the world, Smita has a unique perspective on how ethnicity and cultural background affect education.

Smita was born in Huntsville, Ala. where her father was a physicist at NASA and worked with Werner von Braun. Her parents were the first Indian family in Huntsville, and the Huntsville Times wrote a newspaper article on her mother entitled “Indian Princess Makes Home in Huntsville.” But her family left there when she was a year old and moved back to India for a few years. Smita was exposed to many types of people and ways of life as her father collaborated and taught in India, Scotland and Nigeria—and brought his family with him.  Throughout these travels,  the family cultivated strong friendships with people of all faiths. In Hindi, Smita means one who smiles from the Hindi root word “Smit” or smile.

“As the teacher weaves the father’s lessons into the curriculum to help the students see it in practical terms, his son’s respect for him grows.”

Smita’s lifestyle in New Delhi as a child was quite different from U.S. norms. Smita’s family had a gardener, a woman to sweep and mop the house, a woman to help her mother cook and prep, a weekly “dhobi” who came to launder the bed sheets and towels, and another woman to wash daily clothes like school uniforms and other garments.

Food had to be rationed throughout Smita’s early childhood. Ration cards were used for many years to make sure everyone got their share of what was available. The gardener used the family’s ration card to buy wheat, sugar, rice, semolina and cooking oil. The wheat had to be washed and dried in the sun before the gardener transported it by bicycle to be ground at the mill. Today, the ration cards are mainly used for identification purposes, and the last armed conflict occurred in 1999 in the northern state of Kashmir.

Smita’s parents have always believed education is important and every child should embrace an art form whether it be drawing, painting, singing, playing an instrument or dancing. Starting when Smita and her sister were 4 and 5 years old, they hired a music teacher who came to the house three times each week to teach the girls Indian classical music. “Our environment was a complex mix of empowered living through schooling and yet patriarchal in other ways,” says Smita. “In fifth grade, we were required to stop wearing skirts and wear the traditional salwar kameez instead.”

Smita Mathur, associate professor in JMU’s College of Education pauses with her daughter Kanika, who recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York. Mathur dreams of working online to provide more educational opportunities for girls and women in her family’s homeland of India. © Bradley Striebig Photography

Rather than writing her own name, “Krishna Kumari,” in a book she owned, Smita’s grandmother wrote “Wife of Prem Behari.” “I remember thinking that was a little odd, and it made me think about how Indian women in her day thought about their identity,” says Smita.  She wants to empower her daughter, Kanika, to be secure in her Indian identity. Smita’s husband, Shailesh, has been supportive of raising Kanika, who just graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, to do what she wants rather than choosing a career path for her in the traditional Indian way. Kanika’s accomplishments will be based on her own decisions and determination.

“Shailesh has been an amazing father to Kanika and so supportive of me throughout our marriage. He has relocated as I have taken various academic positions and has been the one to transport Kanika to all her lessons and social events,” says Smita. Shailesh works for MetLife out of their home.

While teaching at USF, Smita noticed the children of migrant farmers needed to be taught by people who shared their culture, but the migrant workers were not academically prepared to become teachers. By applying for a $1.2 million research grant from Helios Education Foundation for tuition, textbooks and tutorials, Smita helped 108 migrant workers get a college education and meet the qualifications to become teachers. Many of them had educational experience back in Mexico or other Latin American countries, but were having trouble learning English. Smita got them the tutors and other support they needed to succeed.

One of her students who used to clean homes is now in graduate school at USF to become a social worker. Another was an African American grandmother raising her grandchildren because her two children were incarcerated. The grandmother used the school’s food pantry program to feed her family. The grandmother had repeatedly failed the required math course and was losing hope of ever graduating. Smita realized the context of the story problems in the math class were subjects like air travel which the grandmother had never experienced. By asking the professor to change the context of the problems to fit the grandmother’s culture, Smita made it possible for her to do the math and pass the course.

Smita sees a need for better educational opportunities for girls in her home country of India. When her grandmother, Krishna Kumari, finished 8th grade, there was no further education available in her village. It was a small community with no electricity or running water. Krishna’s principal was so impressed with her he arranged funding for her continued education in the nearest city. But her family decided it was time for her to get married rather than continuing to go to school.

Later in life, Krishna started a high school for girls in her village so the next generation of girls would have better opportunities. Smita would like to follow the precedent set by her grandmother and help educate girls there, too. She hasn’t worked out the details yet, but she may use technology to provide online educational opportunity for Indian girls and young women. The development and use of science and technology has changed India remarkably since Smita left in 1991.

Smita earned a B.S. from Sophia College in Ajmer, India. It was a Catholic women’s college run by nuns. Her days there included morning assembly and lights out by 9 p.m. “It was quite a convent-dominant educational model,” admits Smita. But she graduated with the highest test scores of any student in her state. Then she earned a M.S. degree from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara, India – a JMU partner. Before coming to Syracuse University (SU) where she received her PhD in Human Development in child and family services, she worked as assistant editor publishing two magazines in New Delhi, India.

Smita Mathur, associate professor in education at JMU, demonstrates how using everyday home examples to teach children math or scientific concepts has multiple benefits for students and parents. © Bradley Striebig Photography

For People’s Action, Smita documented grassroots activism across the nation, especially the women’s movement. The other magazine, Moving Technology, focused on innovations in villages. For example, one village found an inexpensive way to make dome-shaped houses that were resistant to hurricanes.  Solar connections provided electricity since the community’s electrical supply was unreliable. In India, power and water supplies are intentionally turned off during certain times to conserve what is available.

Over the past decade, Harrisonburg City Schools have experienced growing pains as the children of immigrants from all over the world have entered their doors by the hundreds enriching the learning environment with a wide variety of languages, cultures and customs. Smita is one of many JMU professors promoting diversity awareness and encouraging all teachers to embrace multiculturalism.  By sharing her worldview, she can help future teachers understand socio-cultural variables that impact student learning and factors that shape immigrants’ learning experiences.  Such knowledge is essential for creating effective school programs and educational services to meet the needs of culturally diverse individuals.

LAUREE STROUD PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.


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1 Comment

  1. Milind Date on

    This is so great! I hope we had teachers like Smita. such a lovely article too !


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