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Dr S. shines her light on personal story

MON. |5-1-23| FEATURES

     The most feared teacher at Rose, whose name you hear years before you enter the doors as a student, has kept to herself for over 20 years. She does not need attention, and she does not seek it out, but many students are interested to hear the life story of Vasanthara Sundarapather, better known as, Dr. S.

     The reputation Sundarapather has gained in her two decades at Rose, is that she is the toughest math teacher you will ever encounter, as well as a stickler for everything. She is famous for holding class on 

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Photo by Gabi Castillo 

Saturdays, not remembering any names, and burying students in homework.

     However, once a student has a class with Sundarapather they often come out realizing that she is a nice person who is funny and interesting, just insanely passionate about math. She believes this passion has been with her since she was a child in Malaysia.

     “I’ve always taught, even when I was living in Malaysia, like in grade six, really early,” Sundarapather said. “The neighborhood children would come to my house and pay me a dollar and I would teach them how to do math.”

     Despite her successes in math as a child, as she got older she began to stray from her overachieving work ethic, and ended up failing a math course when she was a teenager.

     “When I was in high school I failed math because instead of going to the tutor’s house, my friend and I went to the movie theater,” Sundarapather said. “The reason why I was failing was that I wasn't doing my homework, that’s why I am such a big believer in doing your homework [because] anybody can do it and become good by having that work-ethic.”

     Although most students would tell you Sundarapather definitely has nothing in common with students, she revealed that she flies through entire seasons of TV shows in very short periods of time.

     “Just the other day I watched “The Night Agent” on Netflix, it was like 12 episodes and I did it all in one day,” Sundarapather said.

     Sundarapather’s son, Kabir, attended Rose and graduated eight years ago. He is 26 and currently working towards his Doctorate of Philosophy in Sulfur Isotope Biogeochemistry at Johns Hopkins University. He studied at the California Institute of Technology for his undergraduate degree in Geobiology. Sundarapather is enormously proud of her son and uses him as an example for her students.

     “He went to Rose, from here you can go many places… people think you can only go to UNC or NC State but no you can go everywhere,” Sundarapather said.

     Since Kabir graduated high school, her and husband TJ live alone as empty-nesters. TJ is originally from Nigeria and the chair of the Department of Technology at East Carolina University as well as being an associate professor. The couple met in Terre Haute, Indiana, where they were both studying at Indiana State University (ISU).

      “I went to Indiana [State] and got my masters from them, that’s where I met my husband,” Sundarapather said. “From there I went to Texas A&M to do my PhD and then I came to North Carolina.”

     ISU was Sundarapather’s first taste of the United States (US), and it was not at all what she was expecting.

     “Terre Haute was a small tiny town, that was a real big shock,” Sundarapather said. “I thought, oh I am going to America, I am going to see all these tall skyscrapers, then when I got here it was night time, raining and it smelled because there is a paper factory there that stinks to high heaven.”

     Sundarapather eventually got to visit nearby Chicago and was amazed by the city, which was more impressive than she ever imagined. Prior to studying at ISU, Sundarapather lived in England. She was able to move to England from Malaysia before college with the permission of her older brothers, who were the guardians of her family and were more open-minded. Sundarapather lived in England for a few years and attended secondary school classes before moving to the US.

     After living in England, Sundarapather briefly moved back to Malaysia before moving to the US. During her time away from home for the first time, Sundarapather realized how much she loved food, as she sincerely missed her native cuisine.

     “[The biggest difference in England] was the food, when I was in Malaysia I was very athletic because I ran and jumped for the long jump and the 400 meter team,” Sundarapather said. “I did all kinds of exercise but I ate like a pig, it didn’t stick to my body [then], but when I went to England it did because I just went to school.”

     Sundarapather is unashamed of her love for food, and in England she was forced to try new foods.

     “I am not supposed to eat beef, but when I was young in England I lived in a boarding house for all girls where they would feed you,” Sundarapather said. “I would always be the last person to get up for breakfast and I would run in to make sure I didn’t miss breakfast and whatever was there I would take and eat.”

     “I was eating steak not knowing it was steak, I thought it was lamb I didn’t think it was beef,” Sundarapather said. “I ate and ate for a long time and loved it, it was so delicious.”

      Sundarapather still enjoys steak today, but admits that the overall options to eat in Greenville are subpar to her home of Malaysia. With this, Sundarapather considers herself a serious foodie, and takes pride in her dedication to nourishment. Even though she loves food and loves to eat, she only eats food that she enjoys and can savor.

     “Malaysia is a food paradise, everyone should go there if they get a chance,” Sundarapather said. “They have tropical fruits galore and then noodles, it’s not just one type, there you get like 100,000 varieties of noodles.”

     Along with the shift in cuisine, Sundarapather also had to deal with cultural shifts in the classroom once she began teaching at Rose. When Sundarapather first arrived she could not control her students to the point where an assistant principal had to sit in on her class. Sundarapather also did not always understand what her students were saying to her.

     “A student came in late and told me, ‘I’m sorry I’m late because of the train’ so I thought he took the train,” Sundarapather said. “I told him ‘well take an earlier train,’ then no one told me anything about it until the valedictorian told that story at graduation and I realized he got stopped by the train outside of the school.”

     In her many years at Rose, Sundarapather has secured the title as the most iconic teacher at Rose, but many students only know the name and already fear her. Once students take a class with her, they realize that she is a great person who is just incredibly passionate about math. Sundarapather is someone who has seen the world, and loves to learn, travel, eat and watch movies. So next time you walk by Room 206, rather than speeding up to avoid the queen of homework, take a minute and say hello, because you may learn something new about the one and only Dr. S.

     “You can remember me for being a hard teacher, I don’t care about all that, but I want people to remember that I made a difference and people actually learned something,” Sundarapather said. They know more math after they leave my class [and] their math level is a little higher.”

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