Asha Deka, Class of ’18, has never doubted the ability of women to excel in science. A mathematics and computer science major, she grew up with her biggest role model right in her own home – her mother, an electrical engineer. While certain educational requirements prevented her mother from continuing her career when the family moved from India to the United States, Deka credits her mother as her greatest professional and personal influence.
“In India she was a professor at a university, and she was out and about. She could hold her own, and I really loved that,” she says. “She has all this knowledge, so I always had an interest in science.”
After briefly considering pursuing her mother’s field, Deka, 19, gravitated to computer science because she saw it as an opportunity to “reach more people. I want to help people, and computer science touches everyone.”
A sophomore, Deka’s academic dedication is paying off. Last year she was one of two students chosen nationwide to serve on the board of the National Collegiate Honors Council, which brings together educational institutions, professionals, and students participating in collegiate honors education. In her winning nomination essay, Deka wrote about bringing to the board “the open minded perspective I have gained from being part of an extremely diverse student body at Suffolk.”
“Around 20 percent of incoming freshmen at Suffolk are international students,” she wrote. “As an international honors student myself, I understand the struggles that come with meeting honors requirements when a student is from a non-traditional background. Students from all over the world enroll in American universities, and I think the honors board should reflect that diversity.”
Though thus far she has met only a few times with the National Collegiate Honors Council board, what has impressed Deka is that student opinions are equally encouraged and valued.
“There are deans and professors, and our voice counts just as much as the adults who have Ph.Ds, so that’s really cool,” she says. “We get to express our ideas of what should happen in the conferences, and there are student events that we get to lead.”
Role model and campus leader
Deka’s consideration for her fellow students was always apparent, says Dmitry Zinoviev, a Suffolk computer science professor who taught her when she was a freshman in his Introduction to Computer Science course.
“She is very open and very willing to communicate, and this is one thing I first liked about her,” he says. “She was also quite successful in class, but not only was she successful, but she pulled other students in the right direction. She helped others and I would say served as a role model to other students.”
Helping other students is why Deka revived Suffolk’s computer science club. Right now, the group membership is small – about 10 students – but Deka aims not only to increase the number of participants, but also to make the group as diverse as possible.
“In [mathematics/computer science], I’m one of the few [women or people of color], so we’re trying to recruit more women and people of color,” she says. “I want more women and people of color in computer science, especially in a liberal arts school like Suffolk.”
Zinoviev, whom Deka considers a friend as much as a professor, says he was impressed that she would dive into such an endeavor so early in her collegiate career.
“She also immediately decided to start a computer science club,” he says. “Normally freshmen don’t do this; they usually wait for someone else to do this for them. And she has been able to do this for a second year.”
Maintaining ties with native land
Born in India, Deka lived in Bombay (now commonly known as Mumbai) with her parents and sister, and later in a village near China. Though she has lived in the United States since age 12 – first in New York, then Massachusetts – Deka maintains ties with her homeland. Last year, she did a research project about India’s “Gulabi gang,” also known as the “pink sari gang,” which works to stop domestic violence, mainly in the country’s rural areas, where sexism and a lack of educational opportunities further isolate women.
“In India, it’s like the story in every house that the wife gets beaten or abused in some way,” she says. “The woman is always being put down. If the Gulabi gang finds out a man is beating his wife or abusing her, they will go and try to resolve the issue.” Because the Gulabi gang will occasionally rough up the more recalcitrant abusers, their group, considered by the government as vigilantes, has been declared illegal. Still, Deka says, it has been a lifeline for women trapped in abusive relationships.
The group does its best “to remove the woman from the household. If a woman has been battered, she joins the Gulabi gang,” she says. “It’s actually a community where they sell the pink saris to live off that money. They can help the women, who either go back to their husbands or they can stay and join the cause.”
"I feel like I belong"
If there is a theme in Deka’s young life, it is helping others and claiming your own space. Raised by her mother to be a feminist, she is not interested in how others define her, she says, and therefore believes that she can thrive in any environment. That attitude has been fostered at Suffolk.
“I never feel a need to fight back, especially in a place like Suffolk, because everyone is so accepting,” she says. “It’s easier here. I feel like I belong.”