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Hillsboro's Homegrown Talent: The Datta Family Shows Us How Education Is Everywhere

Post Date:11/01/2017

Hillsboro’s young people — our “homegrown talent” — have a unique opportunity to explore careers and gain professional experience through the City’s youth development programs. With the backing of the community and support from the City Council, students and recent graduates develop their skills in preparation for college and future jobs. City programs help tomorrow’s civic leaders envision living in Hillsboro after high school and college, lending their talents to lead our city into the future.

The Datta Family

Datta FamilyA quick Google search will reveal why Anisha Datta and her brother, Ashwin Datta, are two of Hillsboro’s most promising homegrown talents. They attended Hillsboro schools, won prestigious awards, served on Hillsboro’s Youth Advisory Council and worked as interns in numerous City of Hillsboro departments.

Now, Anisha (pictured right, second from the left) is in her last year at Columbia University in New York City, studying international relations and political science. In August, Ashwin (pictured right, second from the right) began attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) near Boston.

Even more impressive than their accomplishments are their humor, compassion, dedication to their community and interest in helping others.

If you ask their parents, Sham (pictured top right, standing on the far left) and Chitra (pictured top right, standing on the far right) Datta, they’ll describe their family as ordinary and humble — a reflection of their modest view of themselves as parents. But what worked so well for them? What did they do to make their children motivated and happy high achievers?

As Anisha and Ashwin reach for their dreams, the family looked back on some lifelong lessons that helped to set them up for success.


Embrace opportunities for education everywhere  

In the Datta family, education is much more than books — it is experiences, clubs, sports, friends, neighborhood, and community.

Learning is never wasted time — gathering practical knowledge and taking up hobbies are worthwhile, too. Every form of knowledge is equally important.

Chitra, a former software developer, and Sham, an engineer at Intel, come from families who believed strongly in the power of education. “Education will never betray you,” Chitra said. “Education broadens your horizons and helps you understand the world so much better.”

The couple knew that a variety of lessons would shape their children into well-rounded people who could make great contributions to their communities. They wanted a “wholesome” education for their children.

The family gardened together every year. They all know how to cook. When Anisha’s car bumper was damaged, Sham urged her to fix it herself, offering input about how to remove the dent. She and Ashwin removed and jumped on the bumper as their dad suggested; the result was better than passable, and the kids were proud to have fixed it themselves.

“My parents had the culture back home that education was of the utmost importance, over anything except health,” Ashwin said. “That’s my heritage as a child of immigrants. Education will get us the best future and enable us to help people. It motivates me.”


Empower kids to pursue their interests

The whole family is curious by nature. Chitra and Sham have always treated their children as people with valuable perspectives, even when they were very young.

“We were encouraged to develop a broad set of interests and that made learning fun,” Anisha said of her parents. “It was them trusting us and treating us like adults from the beginning. They actively made the choice to give us freedom and let us explore.”

When they expressed curiosity after visiting or hearing about an organization, Chitra would find a contact and encourage her kids to reach out. Their parents never did the work for them. Instead, they trusted and empowered Anisha and Ashwin to follow up on their interests themselves.

Fourth-grade Anisha’s school studies about forests dovetailed with the summer vacations her family spent in National Parks. Inspired by those experiences, Anisha wrote a letter to the education director at the World Forestry Center in Portland, asking for a project. She compiled and wrote a guide for students on field trips and created a presentation — on her own. In return, the Center gave her class a free field trip.

Another year, she contacted Clean Water Services because she was curious about the purity of the water near the family’s house. Someone from the organization visited their home and gave Anisha experiments in which she would collect data through the year, then submit it to Clean Water Services when she was done.

People always responded to the kids’ inquiries. Chitra knew the experiences built confidence and laid the foundation for more engagement. “People respected them and responded to them, which energized them to do other things,” she said.

Chitra and Sham always fostered their kids’ curiosity and inspired them to pursue their own interests. That meant Anisha and Ashwin felt supported, not forced — which made them excited to learn.


Cultivate engagement in the community and interest in the world

Datta FamilyChitra and Sham gave their children opportunities to consider the world and their places in it. Conversations about world issues, politics and culture were always fair game, even when Anisha and Ashwin were very young.

At dinnertime or in the car, the family discussed Sham’s technology projects, plus current affairs and the community. “We would say, ‘This happened today,’ or ‘Did you hear about that?’ We would start arguing,” Chitra said. “It would get intense because we all have different takes on everything.”

Long before Anisha and Ashwin reached voting age, around election time the family “would sit around the table and talk about the issues. We would vote as a family,” Anisha said. The discussions informed and empowered the children to form their own perspectives — and it was fine that their ideas weren’t always the same as their parents’, because they all learned from each other. Better yet, the exchanges enabled Chitra and Sham to learn about their children’s views and understand them as individuals.

Political awareness took root. Eager to contribute to their local government, both Datta kids joined the City’s Youth Advisory Council while they attended Glencoe High School.

“I’ve always been a politically active person,” Ashwin said. “On a local level, there’s so much I can do where I can see the impact of what I’ve done, see things change and meet people affected.”

Both Anisha and Ashwin were born at Tuality Hospital in Downtown Hillsboro and recognize those roots. Their parents encouraged them to participate locally by understanding Hillsboro events, people and organizations.

Staying connected and volunteering were forms of education that would open doors and their young minds. “We wanted them to be involved, whatever their interest was,” Chitra said.


Seven Lessons
That Worked for
the Datta Family

  1. Embrace opportunities for education everywhere. Explore how you can help your child gain a well-rounded education everyday — show them how to learn while waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting to cross a street.


  2. Empower kids to pursue their interests. Remember when your child expressed curiosity on a visit to a park, museum, or point of interest? Consider how you can inspire and trust them to learn about it, understand it and advocate for it.


  3. Cultivate engagement in the community and interest in the world. At dinner tonight, discuss a local issue or an improvement that is helping your neighborhood. Read a newspaper article together and talk about it. Then, make it a habit!


  4. Get involved in kids’ activities. Ask your children what new activity they want at school. Sometimes, all that’s missing is someone to run it and believe in them. Could you be that person?


  5. Find ways to spark your child’s interest. Where is your child most attentive and engaged? This weekend, spend an hour immersing yourselves in learning about it.


  6. Summers and vacations make for laid-back learning. Get outside with your kids and find inexpensive (or even free) local spots for learning. Playgrounds, nature trails, zoos and parks are ideal spots for summer education.


  7. Support kids’ dreams as they grow into young adults. Encourage your child to choose a path they will love — especially if changing their mind about college and careers is part of their nature.

Get involved in kids’ activities

When Anisha started school, Chitra was thrilled at the opportunities available for learning, especially because they were much greater than those she had in India. “You could do whatever you wanted if you put your mind to it,” Chitra said. “The sky was the limit!”

At the same time, she knew activities didn’t need to be expensive or fancy. She was determined to find cost-effective, nearby resources to keep her kids interested in learning. And when the family couldn’t find an activity to satisfy the kids’ curiosity, they created them.

If Glencoe High School didn’t offer a particular activity of interest to Anisha and Ashwin, no one in the family felt disappointed and discouraged. Instead, they looked for solutions and imagined how they could get involved.

In some cases, the only obstacle to setting up a new activity with the school was commitment. Chitra never hesitated to jump in — to Girl Scouts, science bowl, game programming or other leadership. “Identifying an activity is one thing, but some things require you actually running it,” Chitra said.

Robotics was one such activity. When the school principal asked Chitra to do robotics, she saw an opportunity.

“These activities are not expensive. The school needed someone to step in and run it,” she said. “Anyone can do this, especially if they have free time. It requires commitment and belief in the kids. The time is worth it.”


Find ways to spark your child’s interest

When Ashwin was in sixth grade, Chitra ran a video game programming club that met at their house. The boys won competitions, even collecting an award at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

What Chitra remembers, though, is that they had fun. “The laughs they had! It didn’t seem at all like they were doing work,” she said. “They bonded together so well.”

Being free to participate in so many ways is a blessing. Obviously, not everyone has the time to run a club at home every week. However, Chitra’s experiences taught her that all parents can set their children up for success.

“Every child is talented, has some drive toward something,” she said. “Parents know more than anyone what will spark interest in their child’s eyes. It’s hard to expect teachers to know those things. Identifying this gift, recognizing it and finding ways to enrich it is the job of the parent. Find ways to do that.”


Summers and vacations make for laid-back learning

Datta Family The family thought locally about summer adventures, always on the lookout for easy, inexpensive activities. Rather than scheduling camps and programs throughout the summer, they visited the zoo and other attractions.

Most of the time, though, the kids were too busy using their imaginations to encounter summertime boredom.

With a core group of neighborhood friends, they spent their summers in a local creek. “They’d spend 10 to 12 hours a day there,” Chitra said. “They made their own boat and built forts and bridges. They named different spots in the creek. It was a whole other world.”

The parents knew each other and all the kids, who visited a different house for lunch almost every day. Families took turns hosting occasional summer potlucks, with dishes coordinated by the kids. As young adults, Anisha and Ashwin still see those friends from the neighborhood.

The creek shaped their childhoods and their love of Oregon nature. In sixth grade, Ashwin arranged for the forestry department to supply and plant 120 native trees at the creek. Later, Anisha won an award for a piece she wrote about their creek life.

“We worked with what was around us,” Anisha said. “My parents were happy we were out and being active. I didn’t have a care in the world.”

Similarly, the family has always taken inexpensive vacations, often connecting their stops to what the kids learned in school. They were all interested in so many things they encountered on their trips that they could find rich experiences anywhere.

The family took road trips every year, and all four family members looked forward to taking turns playing music, driving and talking — and focusing only on each other. “That was the time to connect deeper,” Chitra said. “It was time to totally disconnect from work or school activities. We made great memories with these trips and we reminisce even to this day.”

In addition, the Dattas visited their family in India every few years — trips that inspired further curiosity and humility.

Their relatives always welcomed them warmly. Even now, Anisha and Ashwin still remember the beautiful sounds and smells of the trips — the jasmine that adorns almost every home, the morning alarm of the cuckoo bird and the aroma of food cooking in every house.

Through the trips, the children learned about societies, cultural differences and universal human needs and aspirations. “The kids saw how people live in India, which enabled them to compare and contrast that with their own lives,” Chitra said. Traveling gave them a broad worldview that helped them to engage with their own community while thinking outside of it.


Support kids’ dreams as they grow into young adults

Above all, Chitra and Sham wanted their children to like their hard work, in every area of their lives. “What will you like? Do that with passion. Do that with love. Money will come. If it’s your job, you have to do it well,” she said.

Going to school in big cities on the East Coast, Anisha and Ashwin are navigating faraway places. Their upbringing is serving them well as they get older and explore the world on their own.

“I felt more prepared to tackle college in a big city because of the amount of responsibility and trust I was given growing up,” Anisha said.

Ashwin knows he’ll return to Oregon someday. “I love Oregon and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else than the Pacific Northwest,” he said. As he aims for a career in aerospace, Ashwin dreams of starting a company — so he can live wherever he wants.

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