IT WAS an unusual sight for everyone on the campus when a 22-year-old woman walked into the illustrious campus of the Government Engineering College, Jabalpur, on a warm July day in 1961. The first female student of the college and the only woman in the batch drew gazes not only from her colleagues but also her teachers. “I was overwhelmed that I made it to the college but at the same time I was confused,” remembers Anita Dandekar, a telecommunication engineer. “It was a time when boys were not comfortable talking to girls and vice versa. I didn’t even know where my class was and didn’t know who to ask,” she says. Anita, who went on to become the first woman lecturer at her alma mater, has many such firsts to her credit. She was the first woman teacher at Sardar Patel College of Engineering, Andheri, and Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, Matunga. In 1973, Anita — then married to an architect — became the first female student to pursue an MTech from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.
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It has been a long and lonely journey for the 78-year-old teacher and philanthropist. “Anywhere I went, I was the only woman,” remembers Anita, who was born in 1939 in a middle-class family. Eldest among four siblings, Anita remembers having a knack for mathematics and hence deciding to pursue engineering much to the dislike of her conservative grandmother. Anita’s father Manohar Sheorey, worker in an ordnance factory, fully supported her. “At that time, engineering courses were traditionally opted for by men. Women rarely pursued higher studies and if they did they would choose medical over engineering,” says Anita.
Many professional avenues opened for Anita once she completed engineering but she decided to become a teacher — a profession she stuck with even after retiring from VJTI in 1999. The only time she applied for a ‘corporate’ job, she never received an interview call. “I later found that I was rejected because I am a woman,” says Anita, who taught at VJTI’s electronics department between January 1967 and September 1999. After her retirement, Anita took to social work and groomed girls to beat gender bias. Anita’s love for teaching introduced her to Vigyan Ashram, an education centre in Pune, in the mid-eighties and she financed the basic technology programme there. Through her association with the Institution of Electronics and Telecommunication Engineers (IETE) for over 20 years, Anita has instituted three awards worth Rs 1.65 lakh each. One of the awards is for girls who excel in the field of electronics and telecommunication engineering.
Anita’s lifestyle mirrors her philanthropic work. Yogesh Kulkarni, the director of Vigyan Ashram, remembers Anita as a simple woman who lives frugally. “She saves every penny and donates it to students,” says Kulkarni, adding that Anita still prefers a state transport bus over a taxi despite her age. For the 78-year-old, Women’s Day is an ‘auspicious’ day. “It is important that women’s contribution to the society is recognised,” she says.