Empowering Through Education

Ask Dr. Umesh Gulati and his wife Usha for advice about living an impactful life, and they’re likely to say, “Have a conversation. Get to know someone.” Preferably someone who’s not like you.

In their early years in the United States, the Gulatis were often faced with their uniqueness. In the places they lived and jobs they held, not a lot of others looked like them. Instead of grumbling about how their ethnic background caused them to stand out, though, Umesh and Usha made a concerted effort to get noticed for reasons that had nothing to do with the color of their skin.

They’d both experienced the pain of isolation early in life. When the British government divided India and Pakistan in 1947, they and their families had become refugees in their own homes. Born in an area of India that became Pakistan with the stroke of a pen, they lost everything in an instant, becoming completely dependent on others even for basic necessities. Life altering, the experience would influence the entire course of their lives.

In response, their parents taught them to be resilient, stressing the significance of education in overcoming life’s obstacles. Both Umesh and Usha followed that advice, going on to study at the highest levels. Usha earned two master’s degrees and Umesh ultimately added a title, becoming Dr. Gulati in preparation for a career as an East Carolina University professor of economics.

His vocation was a testament to his mom’s mantra: “Education is most important.” Although she passed away before seeing Umesh graduate with advanced degrees and go on to guide other students, his mother’s influence on his life and career was unmistakable.

Mostly, she passed down her passion for learning, which he has embraced wholeheartedly, as evidenced by his pursuit of higher education and his contributions to it. Today, through a partnership with Triangle Community Foundation, he continues to laud the benefits of schooling for all.

“Whatever charity we could afford, we wanted to give it here,” he said, “especially for underprivileged children who need more education. The more education they have, the more opportunity they’ll have to get good wages in good jobs.”

The Gulatis have chosen to pass on their educational legacy through scholarships for local high schoolers. Giving preference to those who will be first-generation college students, Umesh and Usha hope the investment they’re making in today’s youth will continue to grow in the years to come.

When asked why they are so passionate about giving back to the Durham community, where they now call home, the Gulatis smile. Umesh emphasizes once more his mom’s insistence on the importance of education, going on to say education got him where he is today. He also reminds us so many here and in his homeland still lack schooling, which leads to the lack of good jobs and inability to make a decent living.

Usha echoes Umesh’s sentiments but adds her passion to see learning beyond book knowledge. She hopes to contribute to mutual cultural understanding. If she has a life theme, it’s summed up when she says:

“I like to help people feel comfortable together. We don’t need to be afraid of each other.”

That fear is one of the biggest challenges Usha sees in communities. She believes racial relations have improved since she and Umesh arrived in the U.S. back in the 1960’s, but she’s not naïve enough to overlook underlying issues that remain. And she hopes to have a small part in helping people to see others simply as people.

To that end, she continues to work assiduously. Serving on diversity committees, leading cultural events, and interacting amicably with neighbors are just a few ways she finds herself pursuing this passion as the years go by. It’s her way of contributing to education beyond secondary school.

Umesh’s conviction that education is a key to our future is as strong as his wife’s. He insists lack of it is one of the biggest challenges facing the local community, but he’s hopeful. He says people are more concerned for one another today than a few years ago.

In general, he believes we understand better the welfare of the underprivileged impacts the welfare of entire communities, and if those with limited resources gain access to what they need, everyone wins.

So the Gulatis keep on giving, hoping, and striving for educational opportunities for those who’ve had least access to them. Access granted to the disadvantaged, they say, lifts the entire community. And isn’t that something we can all agree on?

The Gulatis are fundholders at the Foundation.

Written by Julie Johnson