Ep. 15 – Sheila Steinberg and Lata Murti speak on the value of a liberal arts education
In this episode of Brandman Speaks, Dr. Sheila L. Steinberg talks with her colleague Dr. Lata Murti about Murti’s education, the value of a liberal arts education and what Murti has in common with the students she teaches and mentors in the Santa Maria community.
Murti completed her Ph.D. in American Students and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and joined the Brandman faculty in 2011. She has taught or revised most of the sociology courses the university offers and developed two new courses, one on globalization and social change and the other on the sociology of health care. Her greatest inspiration is her family.
Welcome to Brandman Speaks. In this episode, Brandman Professor Sheila Steinberg talks with Assistant Professor Lata Murti about her education, her connection to the Santa Maria community where she teaches, and about the value of a liberal arts education.
Sheila Steinberg: This is Dr. Sheila Steinberg. I’m here with yet another leader of Brandman University, Dr. Lata Murti who is assistant professor of sociology at the Santa Maria Valley campus. Lota has worked for Brandman University for about five years since 2011. She teaches sociology. So Lata, I know we’ve been talking a lot lately about the podcast and your work in general and you said, ‘the personal is political,’ and we thought that would be a good theme to discuss. So do you want to expand a little bit on what the statement? The personal is political.
Lata Murti: Sure thank you. So that’s just a saying that really arose from the feminist movement in the ’60s and ’70s but I see it as applicable to really all of us and certainly my journey, in that, often what’s going on in my personal life, inspires what I want to study and the political stance that I take on it and how I analyze it.
So when I think about my major academic research projects and publications, I feel like they’ve all been inspired by something in my personal life.
Steinberg: You teach a great variety of classes here at Brandman and do you want to tell us a little bit about that.
Murti: Well I mostly teach sociology and social science courses but I feel like I bring an interdisciplinary perspective to it.
And in many ways, I mean, sociology and social science art are inherently interdisciplinary, I feel. And and yet also when I’m teaching a course like globalization or social inequality, stratification, social theory, social and political theory, I feel those are interdisciplinary and to have a perspective inspired by different fields and different experiences really helps.
Steinberg: So Lata you’ve had an interesting academic path. Can you share a little bit about your interdisciplinary, liberal arts background and your various degrees schools that you went to.
Murti: So I did two bachelor’s degrees at the University of Kansas, the home of the Jayhawks. I grew up partly in Kansas. Those degrees were in Spanish and humanities. Humanities was interdisciplinary and I had three concentrations there. Then when I was done at my bachelor’s degrees I worked for a while in the Kansas City area and was mostly in jobs involving Spanish. And then I decided I wanted to go on for graduate degrees, so I went to USC, the University of Southern California, for a master’s and Ph.D. program and one in American studies and ethnicity.
Steinberg: OK and can you really quickly tell us what American Studies is.
Murti: Right so American studies started as a program that really looked at what defines America, what defines American in terms of history literature culture.
And it was grounded in this idea of American exceptionalism – that America is an exceptional nation and what about it makes it exceptional. That’s the tradition of American studies. But a lot of programs in American studies today take a more critical approach, a revisionist approach, to American history and culture and literature and are more critical of American exceptionalism. And the program I went to at USC did that with also looking at the ethnic communities of the U.S. And so it was an American studies and ethnic studies program in one.
Steinberg: Let’s talk about that. Let’s make that connection to where you live and work right now. So you live up in Santa Maria which is a rural area right off the 101 freeway. And it would be great to hear a little bit about your engagement with the population, which I understand is largely Latino there. Why don’t you talk about maybe how your background in studying some of these different cultures and ethnicity kind of has helped you in and some of the work that you do. Tell about some of the work you do in the community.
Murti: So Santa Maria is primarily rural There are a lot of Latino migrant workers in agriculture. It’s an agricultural community. And a lot of my students at Brandman in Santa Maria are the children of the migrant workers who are in the area. So a lot of first generation college students, working class or poor, and they haven’t had a lot of teachers I would say or they haven’t maybe seen a lot of professionals who are women of color and who are mothers.
And I am those things. I am a woman of color. I am a mother. I speak Spanish and so I can really connect to my students that way. And I’m happy to be able to do that and I hope they enjoy that connection as well. In the community at large, through an organization called the North Santa Barbara County Education Office, I go to a lot of area schools. Mostly middle schools, also high schools, and I talk to first generation college-bound latino students and I talk to them about my career and my path much like I’m doing today how I got to where I am but also college in general and what they need to do to get there.
Steinberg: So a lot of that’s interesting that you’re out there as a woman of color. Even though you’re Indian. You know, you speak Spanish, you relate to your community, and I think that, you know what’s the message you tell these young people when you go out and you interact with them? What’s the message you’re trying to give them?
Murti: One of my main messages is that it’s OK to fail. In fact, that it’s necessary to fail. That it’s through failure that you learn how to succeed. And that surprises a lot of students. Even their teachers sometimes and their teachers will tell me you know no one’s ever told them that before. They’ve only learned failure is bad, failure is not an option. But the teachers agree that they need to hear that. And I try to tell them that anything worth doing is struggle and you’re going to experience failure. But it’s through failure that you learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and how to succeed. So hat’s one of the main messages I try to tell them.
Steinberg: What an empowering message, to have a person who’s made it, who’s a professional come out and say that. And what’s the reaction that you get from students when you share that message?
Murti: I think they are surprised. I mean a lot of times they are middle schoolers. They’re just, for them, I guess, speaker means they’re happy they get out of their traditional lesson for the day. So I don’t know if they’re always listening to me. But when I say that I usually see heads pop up, looking at me with frowns. And I don’t know if the message fully sinks in. I mean there are 13,14 I don’t know if they’ve experienced enough of the world to have experienced failure. But hopefully they remember what I said. I think they will. And I give an example from my own life how when I was their age I wanted to be a celebrity. I wanted to be a rock star. I thought I wanted to be a singer right. I was into of course of pop culture, pop music, and I tell them my freshman year in high school I joined the freshman ensemble, the music ensemble.
And I realized I want really bad singer. I don’t have a good voice. So yeah.
And through that experience I realized. You know I have friends who are really good singers and this is where they shine and I can be there to support them, but this is not where I shine. I shine in other areas and that was good for me to realize. Because then I could focus on where my strengths are in writing or presenting and public speaking and teaching and I could let others shine in singing and I tell students. Who knows if I hadn’t had that experience. I may still be trying to be a singer but it’s through those experiences that we learn.
Steinberg: A lot of people when they go to college are like why I’ve got a major in this or that because I need this or that job.
And so some you will never even come to the liberal arts because they think oh I got to you know do something more applied and you know you’re someone who has. And so what would you say. You know considering this theme you know of being willing to take a risk, right. What would you tell people who are thinking about choosing a major in college and and what’s the value of this liberal arts education that we provide that we teach in.
Murti: Well my advice would be do what you love study what you love what your passion is because it has to sustain you or you’re not going to be able to see it through. College is a lot of work. Life is a lot of work. And if you’re not doing what you love at least part of the time it’s going to be hard to succeed. My dad always told me growing up that if 50 percent of what you do gives you pleasure and not pain and you enjoy it, then that’s a good deal. Aim for 50 percent, because you’re always going to have to do things you don’t like to do. But if you’re enjoying at least 50 percent, that’s a good deal and I always remember that so I went with what my heart and my interests were in the liberal arts what I wanted to study. And in the end when you do that I think it opens up many doors for you, and you’re open to a lot more and you learn critical thinking and you learn empathy, and you learn how to, how to see humanity in new ways and new perspectives and that helps you no matter what you go on to do later. And it provides the foundation.
Steinberg: And I know you’re also, in addition to being a wonderful teacher, you’re also a scholar, an academic. You’re always going to conferences. You’ve written a book. Do what you want to share anything about that sort of like how your passion has driven you to be successful in these areas.
Murti: Sure. I think it goes back to the personal is political in that I would see things in my personal life with my family that I was not reading about in my in my classes. Whether when I was a student or a teacher. And that to me open a door, provided an avenue to say, well here’s a story. Here’s something that could be studied and written about that hasn’t been before. So maybe it’s my job to tell this story or write about it.
Steinberg: So what do you mean it wasn’t written about and you didn’t see it in the books?
Murti: So for example I grew up with my grandmother she lived with us for really most of my life. She came to live with us when I was 9, and from India and passed away when I was in my 30s. So she was an elderly Hindu immigrant widow. And I knew there were others like her, living with their sons or daughters or daughters-in-law and their families and their grandchildren. But in the immigration literature, in the sociology literature, I didn’t see anything being written about these immigrants and their relationships with their families in the U.S. So that informed my first article that I published in graduate school. I interviewed others like my grandmother and she inspired that.
Murti: [00:13:29] So I interviewed other elderly Hindu immigrant widows and I wrote about their stories and that was published, and then my dissertation, which became my book, is on Indian immigrant doctors in the U.S., and my father inspired that because he, like many others came in the late 1960s, others in the ’70s and ’80s, from India. Doctors to work in the United States and a lot of professionals from India came to the U.S. as immigrant doctors.
And they are retiring now and again no one’s really told their stories and their experiences in the U.S. So that inspired my dissertation and my book.
Steinberg: That’s great. And we share that similarity because my dad is also from India and I recall growing up a lot being sort of the other, maybe not really fitting in, having a different cultural background or religious background. And I just was wondering, can you comment on that what was it like for you growing up in Kansas being the quote unquote other?
Murti: Yeah, that’s interesting. So particularly where I lived in Kansas, most of the Indian American families were doctors’ families. They were there to serve the hospital in the area. So being Indian American was conflated with being a doctor. And that’s how you were you were seen as not, you were seen as the doctor’s kid and the Indian doctor’s kid, and so there was there was obviously this resentment and jealousy that you were more wealthy than the rest of the community. That you were coming into this rural working class community and succeeding right away as a as a foreigner. That was the feeling.
Steinberg: Yeah how did you cope with that being a kid?
Murti: It was hard. I think that’s in part why I poured myself into school. It was hard socially. I don’t feel like I made a lot of close friends, ever, in those years. But it again it inspired me to study what I did and to understand people better. In that environment I was forced to understand other people’s perspectives and why they might think what they think of me and my family and that in the long-term, even though I didn’t know it then, pushed me into sociology. I think it made me a good sociologist. And so originally when I was doing my dissertation book, I really wanted to do a comparison of Indian immigrant doctors in rural areas versus urban.
But when you’re doing a dissertation, it’s, you can be ambitious but it’s hard to, it’s hard to do comparative studies and travel and get the money to do all of that so I didn’t do the rural component. But I think that’s a new study waiting to be done.
Steinberg: Right and you know what I find really interesting about your story is that you now live in a rural area once again. And and tell me is that similar or different? I mean, now your dad retired but he’s there and are you still viewed as being, and are you how are you viewed now in this kind of different more minority based rural community?
Murti: It does remind me a lot of growing up in rural southeast Kansas.
So in retrospect I feel like my time in Kansas prepared me for this current time in my life I would never of known it then. But you know now my dad is retired and I’m the Indian-American professional in the community, if you will. But it’s a different context in that it’s more of a Latino context, which didn’t exist at the time I was growing up in rural Kansas. It wasn’t predominantly Latino. So.
I think because of my previous experiences, my knowledge in Spanish. Having studied in Costa Rica as a college student, I feel like I and as a sociologist, I feel like I can find some way to connect with just about everyone in my community. And I like that. It’s a good place to be.
Sometimes I joke I’m the all-purpose ethnic but that comes from having the experience as I did and the empathy I learned as a student of liberal arts.
Steinberg: Yeah let’s move forward with that. So so what would you tell young people, adult learners who are coming to Brandman, who are thinking about what should I major in and maybe they’ve had similar they have similar interests and backgrounds. What would you tell them about the value of the liberal arts experience.
Murti: Yeah I think it’s what I said earlier. Going to college, doing well in college, especially as a working adult student, it’s hard work. It’s grueling. It’s late nights. So study what you love. And follow your heart. The important thing is that you have your degree at the end. In some ways, it should matter less what the degree is in, but that you did your degree in something you love. And if you loved what you did and you worked hard at it, you will certainly have learned useful skills that you can apply later. No matter what you go on to do you’ll find a way to make it apply.
Steinberg: I want to just sort of wrap up the interview with a comment to ask, you know you clearly love what you do.
And how does that how does that look for you every day, to come to work to do a job, to put in a lot of hard work, time and effort, to do your job. How do you feel about that like emotionally and you know spiritually? How does that I mean how does that resonate with you your personal well-being?
Murti: Oh it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful for my confidence. You know there is a meme. I’m on social media and Facebook like so many of us and I see the inspirational quotes in there.
And there was one I saw recently that really what people need is appreciation for what they do. And I feel appreciated and that’s great because I feel appreciated for my ideas. And that’s something, to be able to come up with good questions and good ideas, and to be able to express them empathetically and make those connections with people.
Also to have a sense of humor. All of the things I think are rooted in my liberal arts background. I think liberal arts teaches you how to live well.
Steinberg: Well I just want to say thank you ,Dr. Lata Murti, it’s been great to talk to you today on another session of Brandman Speaks.
Murti: Thank you Sheila.
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