Although today she is a respected tenured professor with an international reputation in her field, Sesha Kethineni had to overcome more than her share of obstacles both in her native India and in Normal, Ill., to reach that point.
Kethineni wanted to practice law as a career, but in India, law is a male-dominated field. She said unless one has parents in the legal profession, it is hard to excel. So Kethineni chose to continue her formal education in the criminal justice field, which has also historically been a male-dominated field. She decided to teach at the collegiate level and took her first teaching job at Illinois State in 1989. Kethineni found herself once again in a minority position, an Indian woman struggling to communicate with her American students due to her accent.
“I did not realize the difficulties I would face as a new faculty member, especially teaching as a minority with an accent,” Kethineni said. “The first six months were hard, and my students were not kind to me. Once I passed the fear and lack-of-experience stages in teaching, I knew I could do the job. Sometimes my students felt that my standards and expectations were much too high, but I would not compromise. I no longer feel that I have to pour my knowledge into my students, but I want them to leave my classroom at a much higher level than when they first came into it.”
Kethineni also felt isolated in Bloomington-Normal, as there were not many Indians in the community. She thought she would learn her craft of teaching and then move on. However, she became involved in research, and her chair and dean both encouraged her to stay at Illinois State.
That was 21 years ago and, today, Kethineni said Bloomington-Normal has four or five Indian groceries and many restaurants as compared to one grocery and no restaurants upon her arrival for the thriving Indian community.
At Illinois State, Kethineni has had many research interests in the past 21 years, including youth violence, family violence and women and crime. Her most current research focuses on juvenile justice policies and human rights issues. She is in India this summer, after receiving an Illinois State travel grant, interviewing non-governmental agencies who specifically deal with human rights violations of Dalits (untouchables), the lowest and most oppressed caste in India.
Kethineni said the Indian National Human Rights Commission published a report about the laws, policies and procedures that have been enacted to protect Dalits’ rights, but India is not enforcing them to their fullest. She will research what can be done to improve and enforce those rights. Kethineni is also working on human rights violations against Romas (commonly called gypsies) in Europe. Toward that end, she has written a book chapter on Roma and Dalits human rights violations.
For her juvenile justice policies research, Kethineni has been working with McLean and other counties on the Redeploy Illinois project, a project resulting from an Illinois law that specified providing local services to juveniles rather then sending them to prison for such things as mental health assessment.
“It costs $70,000 to keep a juvenile in prison for a year as compared to $15,000-$16,000 for local services,” Kethineni said. “The Redeploy Illinois project is working, and I have been tasked with doing an evaluation of the effectiveness of the program. With the state budget crisis, money is not getting to these social service agencies. It is becoming a sad situation.”
Kethineni will also examine juvenile justice policies in India. She said India passed the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection Act in 2000, which is a child friendly, welfare-focused act, and she will research what has happened since the act passed (i.e., how effective is enforcement).
Kethineni is particularly pleased with the CJS and CAST leadership’s view of internationalizing the CJS curriculum and with the increase in minority students. “Our new chair worked in Europe, and we hope to capitalize on her international ties,” she said. “We have 7-8 percent minority student representation in our program as opposed to 3 percent when I started. I would like to see more as well as more international studies courses.”
The department brings Indian faculty and students to Illinois State to compare juvenile justice systems. “My international colleagues are surprised at the extent of monitoring of juveniles in the U.S. detention centers,” she said. “The Indian system does not monitor juveniles as extensively as the U.S. system. Juveniles can be taken home by families in India for special occasions and there is some freedom, with lots of trust and heavy family involvement.”
When Kethineni conducts research in India, she gets lots of student e-mail, indicating an interest in her research. She works with Indian colleagues and hires Indian graduate assistants. Kethineni said she worked very hard to prove herself and feels that she has earned respect in her native country as well as in the U.S. and beyond.
“I sometimes think about going back to work with agencies in India, where my family still lives,” she said, noting that her father is a physician and a business man there, her sister and brother are in business and her brother-in-law is an engineer. That possible move may be delayed a bit longer as Kethineni has a daughter who will be attending Carthage College this upcoming year with the desire to be a cardiologist.