Professor’s varied background helps him teach mindfulness, self-awareness


Over the years, Ramaswami Mahalingam has been a math tutor, film script writer, children’s theater activist, poet, writer, lecturer, night watchman, dish washer, cook, janitor, book stacker, preschool teacher, structural engineer and psychologist.

As a result, Mahalingam quickly gained a first-hand look into the disparities and inequalities associated with different vocations. The themes present in his current areas of study are similarly influenced by his direct life experiences, both within the personal and professional spheres.

Part of his current work is influenced by his experience with lower-income jobs. He studies the different ways certain lines of work are devalued, and its workers marginalized, with the hopes of increasing the visibility of these issues.

“The reason I had all of these different kinds of jobs was to survive,” he said. “One of my jobs was as a janitor. My current work is looking at janitors and other ‘invisible people,’ and how people don’t pay attention to them.”

Photo of Ramaswami Mahalingam
Ramaswami Mahalingam is professor of psychology and women’s studies and director of the Barger Leadership Institute. He studies the different ways certain lines of work are devalued, and its workers marginalized. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Mahalingam was born in India, and received a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, he is a professor of psychology and women’s studies, as well as a core faculty member of the psychology and women’s studies joint Ph.D. program.

Mahalingam also directs the Barger Leadership Institute and leads a program centered around the importance of mindfulness in leadership development and personal awareness.

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Through his “Mindful Leader Program,” Mahalingam is able to address issues that affect communities in implicit ways. By developing self-awareness in his students through journaling, conscious reflection and out-of-class activities, he promotes compassion, generosity and the importance of having an authentic sense of self in the process of developing leadership.

Recently, Mahalingam curated an exhibit encompassing all of his areas of study: “Being Brown: South Asian Narratives of Brownness in Southeast Michigan.” It showcased the narratives of South Asian people living in the Midwest through interview transcripts, video montages, poetry and monologues.

Although originally trained as a civil engineer, he said he pursued that field of study because of social and parental expectations. His experiences with the various pressures exerted upon children within the Asian-American community by their parents inspired another area of study, that of the ways in which the “model minority myth” has many psychological complications in Asian-American youth.

“It may look like there are many different issues I am pursuing, but I am essentially looking at issues of marginality, and how different intersections of class, gender, ethnicity, sexualities, shape how people talk about who they are, and how they make sense about this,” he said.

Q & A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

I developed a new holistic Mindful Leadership program integrating art, poetry and filmmaking and mindfulness with leadership development for the Barger Leadership Institute. It was a six-month-long program. The students who participated in the program presented their project in a showcase at the Ann Arbor Art Center in the second week of April. It was wonderful to see their growth and engagement with their learning. It was heartening to see the impact of the program on their development that is grounded on their values.

What can’t you live without?

My morning Matcha, K-Dramas and working with my graduate and undergraduate students.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

Sitting at the lobby of Shapiro Library watching the campus tour of potential applicants listening to the narrative of the tour guide who is talking and walking backwards.

What inspires you?

Engaged learning and development of students.

What are you currently reading?

Martin Espada’s poetry collection “Vivas to those who have failed,” “Moshi Moshi” by Banana Yoshimoto, “Killing Commendatore” by Haruki Murakami, and “Happy New Year to everyone – To Raymond Carver” by Kim Yeon-su.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Coming from a small town and a first-gen student, Dostoevsky, Ozu and Akira Kurosawa opened the world to me. Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire shaped it. On a personal level, my late mentor Professor John Nesgoda had shown me how to lead a meaningful academic life by his compassion, kindness and care of his students. He was an exceptional mentor.


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