Professor Deepak Sarma’s mentoring technique earns top honors

Deepak Sarma on a bench at CWRUWhen Deepak Sarma heard he was a recipient of the J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Undergraduate Mentoring, his emotions won out.

“I cried,” he said. “I was utterly surprised by this news and was overwhelmed by the care and warmth of my students. I also felt that my dharma—or duty—as a teacher had been fulfilled.”

Such emotions are one of the many reasons students connect with Sarma, a professor of South Asian religions and philosophy.

A student who nominated Sarma for the Jackson Award recalled a time she was questioning her career choice and cultural identity. Seeking Sarma’s insight, the student stopped by his office. Sarma quickly realized something was wrong and canceled all of his afternoon appointments to speak with her, the nominator remembered.

He talked through her concerns point by point and even shared anecdotes from his own life to better relate to her troubles, she noted. Afterward, he set up weekly meetings, encouraged her to talk with her parents and sought (with her permission) other individuals who could provide insight.

With that, the student solidified Sarma as not only a mentor and adviser, but a trusted friend.

“Professor Sarma is one of the people who understands me, my background, and my academic and personal lives the best, and whom I trust the most to help me work through the important decisions in my life,” she wrote in nominating materials for the award.

Deepak Sarma CWRU teaching students
Deepak Sarma in action in one of his classes.

In this instance, among many others he has faced over the years, Sarma employed his mentoring approach: “to lend a sympathetic ear and to offer candid and sincere reflections when appropriate,” he explained. It’s a style he’s honed during his 10 years at Case Western Reserve, where he teaches courses such as “Introduction to Indian Philosophy” and “Hindu and Jain Bioethics.”

Though he’s improved his technique—and now receives accolades for it—he is quick to note how difficult mentoring truly is.

The balance of listening and advising “is dreadfully hard to achieve and one without the other is usually inadequate, or ineffective,” he said. “Ideally, the context and shared feeling of respect and care will lend to fruitful mentoring symbiosis.”

The Jackson Award honors outstanding advising and mentoring of undergraduate students by a current employee or emeriti faculty member of the university. J. Bruce Jackson (ADL ’52) established the award in 2003 to honor the late Dean Carl F. Wittke, Jackson’s mentor during his undergraduate years.

Sarma shares this year’s Jackson honors with Yoram Daon, a lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. They will receive recognition during commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 18, for making a positive impact on students’ lives.