Sunday, May 26, 2024

Professor Mahesh C. Sharma, president of Cambridge College, at Central Square’s 2005 Unity Dinner, for which he served as  keynote speaker. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

Professor Mahesh C. Sharma, president of Cambridge College, at Central Square’s 2005 Unity Dinner, for which he served as keynote speaker. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

For more than 30 years, Cambridge College president Mahesh C. Sharma has labored to provide educational opportunities for people who never had the chance or who never tried when they had the chance.

But despite all his working-class student success stories for people who might not otherwise have had a crack at the American dream, Sharma himself never became an American citizen.

That is, until September.

And the reason why is amazing:

Sharma’s family is from India. His paternal grandfather was loyal to the British Empire. But Sharma’s father stood with the legendary champion of the oppressed — Mahatma Gandhi — in defiance of the British, and was jailed several times during the long fight for Indian independence.

“My grandfather was knighted by the British. My father fought the British,” Sharma said. “I love America, but it was very hard for me to renounce my Indian citizenry. I could not even bring it up to my father.”

To say the issue was a sore spot would be an understatement.

As long as Sharma’s father was alive, Sharma could not broach the subject of U.S. citizenship without upsetting him.

Therefore, he waited until several years after his father died — in 2001, at the age of 77 — to make the move.

Becoming a U.S. citizen was something he had wanted to do for a long time, because of his love for democracy and the American ideals that compare so closely to those for which his father and Gandhi stood.

Sharma became an American citizen Sept. 22.

Not long afterward, at a Nov. 9 reception, Sharma delivered a speech in which he said that “almost everyone, at least in modern times, has come to this country to find freedom from something — freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom from unnatural constraints.”

But most importantly, they seek “freedom itself — freedom to express oneself, freedom to realize one’s potential, freedom to practice one’s beliefs … exercise choice, and freedom to be fully human.”

The cardinal virtues that define Americans are “self reliance, common sense, love of fairness and a ‘can-do’ spirit that pervades the American character,” he said. “Therefore we are an entrepreneurial, hard-working bunch. We love to tell stories of self- made people. These stories are the folklore and the core of the American character.”

Sharma explained yesterday that he came from a family in which education was the family business:

“We were all teachers, poets or physicians,” he said. “Teaching is in my blood; it’s in my psyche; and it’s in my family.”

Sharma’s father, a professor of Sanskrit, boycotted the universities at Ghandi’s request, something of a challenge to Sharma’s professor and poet grandfather. Despite the rift in the family stemming from the British Empire’s domination of India until 1947, that spirit of education prevailed. And over the years, Sharma’s father and grandfather reconciled.

One thing that Sharma inherited is his outspoken nature on the issues of equality.

Another reason Sharma decided to become an American citizen when he did was because he began to consider the ramifications of remaining Cambridge College president without being an American.

He said he thought it could weaken his position when arguing about certain issues.

For example, he said, there was a bill in the Legislature that would provide tuition assistance to undocumented aliens. And he had some very strong views on the subject:

“These are graduates of high schools,” he said. “It is not their fault they were brought here by their parents.”

So now, at 62, he’s officially an American.

His son and daughter are following in family tradition: Sharma’s daughter teaches poetry and creative writing. Sharma’s son is a teacher and coaches basketball for troubled kids on the west side of Boston.

“I am very proud of him,” Sharma said. “At 38, he has helped a lot of people. Most people don’t become philanthropic at that age.”