Yerrabali was an average student, doing just enough not to attract attention. “I didn’t have to be better than my peers; I just had to be better than my brothers,” he laughs.
One day, around 1 pm, he was returning home from school when a young man new to the community asked Yerraballi what grade he was in. She told him, and then the man asked to see his math book. The man, who Yerraballi later learned was a top graduate of one of India’s elite universities, was genuinely enthusiastic about mathematics. “I had never met anyone who was enthusiastic about doing math.”
The man asked Yerraballi if he could tutor him, free of charge. “I said, ‘Yes, on one condition: you will teach me as if you don’t know anything. I’m an average student and on any given day my confidence is 50/50 on anything.’”
Almost every day after that chance encounter, Yerraballi stopped by the young engineer’s house to do his math homework, while the man divided his attention between Ramesh’s problems and a crossword puzzle. “His excitement was so contagious,” he recalls. While the teachers at Yerraballi’s Catholic school had insisted on a set way to reach solutions, the young engineer showed him that there were many ways to arrive at the right answer, if he had a deeper understanding of the problem. “He was brilliant. He taught me the joy of math but also the joy of English, of reading good prose.
Soon, Yerraballi was no longer average. While the other students were solving problems in the textbook, he was solving problems way beyond their level, problems the engineer was making up. When Yerraballi took the state college entrance exam, he ranked 155 out of 100,000. He could go anywhere and do anything math-related.
Yerraballi recounts his journey in and out of information technology as a series of defaults rather than choices driven by a passion. In bourgeois Telangana at the time, there were only two fields that were deemed worthy of pursuit: medicine and engineering. His high math scores gave him automatic entry into engineering, and since computer science was considered the most elite field within engineering, he opted against it. Then he switched to nearby Osmania University in Hyderabad as it was the best school in the state.
By this time, Yerraballi had never seen a computer, except the CNC (computer numerical control) machine at his father’s workplace that used punched cards.
The result of what he calls his home state’s “narrow worldview,” where everyone has to be an engineer or a doctor, is that there are few jobs for them once they get their education. So they go to graduate school, either in India or the United States. He decided to come to the United States. With $2,000 from his uncle, he secured a place at Old Dominion University in Virginia, graduating with a Ph.D. in 1996.
How we almost let him get away
He launched his teaching career at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, and after two years there and a summer out of academia in counseling, he went to UT Arlington. For the next eight years, Yerraballi fought a battle that will sound familiar to young faculty members, trying but repeatedly failing to secure funding for research proposals. He believes it was because he didn’t do the networking that is part of selling one’s work. Ultimately exhausted by the process, Yerraballi left his professorship, despite rave reviews for his teaching, and devoted himself to teaching full-time, without guilt or compromise.