Each year, graduates of Santa Clara University’s civil engineering program receive a personally signed paperback book, Monkey Wisdom, from the elder statesman of that department— Sukhmander Singh, who has been teaching at SCU for 36 years.
The book contains fable-like stories—most featuring monkeys—that Singh has told to his students over the years whenever he thought they needed a reminder about the merits of focus, perseverance, or personal values. A story about a donkey stuck in a well with dirt being shoveled on him, for instance, turns into a lesson about being able to rise above challenges that rain down in every life. Having grown up in a Sikh Indian farming family which never expected him to go to college—much less get a Ph.D. and become a beloved professor—it’s a lesson Singh feels deeply, and wants to pass on to students.
“I describe him as a ball of sunshine,” said Vanessa De La Rosa, a junior civil engineering student and assistant to Singh. “He can really tell when students are going through a hard time, or when they are stressed out. He knows what they need to hear.”
That unceasing care for his students by Singh—who teaches geology and geotechnical engineering—touched one family so much that they recently donated $3 million to create the Sukhmander Singh Endowed Professorship in Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering. The professorship will be awarded to a Santa Clara educator who—like Singh—has distinguished themselves academically and exemplifies the highest ideals and values of a Jesuit education, among other qualifiers.
Santa Clara currently has over 50 endowed professorships, including the Wilmot J. Nicholson Family Professorship, which Singh held for 25 years. Most endowed professorships are named in honor of generous donors or former professors—not typically for professors living and working at SCU.
“It’s extremely rare for a professor to be honored in this way," said Elaine Scott, dean of the School of Engineering. “It goes to show the impact of our profession on students can be very long lasting and profound.”
“An endowed professorship is a tremendous validation of the quality of education our students are receiving," said Ed Ryan, acting provost of Santa Clara University. "It will help ensure continuity of excellence in civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering course offerings for generations to come."
Decades of Caring and Connecting
Among his peers, Singh is known as the consummate faculty “connector” on campus—championing new professors, especially those from other countries, and advocating for engagement and cultural awareness between U.S.- and foreign-born professors.
Nam Ling, who now chairs the computer science and engineering department, became friends with Singh when both were younger professors in relatively small departments. Singh would actively support his friend, including nominating him for awards, and would encourage all new faculty members, especially foreign-born, to engage with their peers and get noticed for their work.
“Many foreign-born professors are low-key, soft-spoken, and may not speak up if something is wrong or not quite right,” says Ling, whose department now has the largest enrollment in the School of Engineering. “Sukhi is a bit different— more outspoken, willing to speak up."
For instance, Singh would regularly point out when a qualified person was being overlooked for professional opportunities, and raised concerns if those denied promotions, awards or leadership opportunities don't receive the honest feedback they need to improve.
“We should be truthful, but also diplomatic and kind,” reasoned Singh. “It will help people.”
The founding chair of the bioengineering department, Yuling Yan, has been friends with Singh since she joined SCU in 2008 and frequently had lunch with him. She’d marvel at how many people he knew on the way to Adobe Lodge, where he was such a fixture that a vegetarian sandwich is named The Sukhi Sandwich after him.
“In the first years, I was very engaged in building a new (bioengineering) department, and I needed to communicate with diverse faculty and members of other units,” recalls Yan, whose department now has eight full-time faculty members. “He helped me a lot and connected me to many different people.”
Singh’s constant efforts to bring colleagues together led to the faculty lounge in Bergin Hall being named after him, and to his organizing the engineering school’s monthly Dean’s Teas—which he had hoped to model after the twice-daily tea breaks faculty enjoy at Cambridge University, where he was a visiting professor for nine years.
Singh also is admired for a teaching style that is both passionate and compassionate. Last fall, he saw that his students were struggling as they came back to classes after long months of online learning and isolation due to COVID-19, followed by student deaths that impacted many. Singh sought out and accepted advice from his students on the best way to modify his final exams—making them essentially another midterm rather than a cumulative final.
“He really wants and believes the best about his students,” said Maddie Ly, a sophomore who frequently seeks out Singh for his advice and wisdom.
Early Life in India
Singh grew up in Kikkar Khera Village in Punjab, India, near the border of what is now Pakistan. He was six years old when India ended British crown rule, including the country’s “partitioning” into two states—majority Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India—during a time of extreme sectarian violence. Singh’s four brothers, his parents, his grandparents, and nine aunts and uncles and their kids all lived near one another. Members of the minority Sikh religion, the Singhs were farmers who expected their children and grandchildren to work in the fields growing wheat, cotton or lentils. Not long after the 1947 partition, the family feared for a time that their village would become part of Pakistan. So they freed all their animals and fled for several months before returning home to rebuild the family farming business.
As a middle schooler, Singh rode five miles on horseback or bicycle to school, where he was taught by an instructor with no school building or supplies—and who used sand on the ground as an erasable chalkboard.
“I had to grasp everything at school. There were no study groups when I got home,” and no lights to help him read after his work in the fields, he recalls. “I gradually developed an intense focus. When I was in class, I was absorbing everything,” he says.
Singh loved learning because it answered the many questions he had burning inside him, and appealed to his natural aptitude for science and math. He didn’t think about giving up despite the obstacles, or the fact that none of his elders had any formal education. “My parents and my grandparents— they didn’t have even a single day of education, so I was the first one,” said Singh.
As a professor, he tries to encourage his students to find that same love of learning and focus within themselves, strongly believing that it can combat the stress and burnout afflicting so many students today.
“No matter how far behind you are, no matter how careful or crazy your professor is— be focused,” he tells students. “If you follow this, you will lead a less stressful life, number one. And number two, you will be surprised that learning will become a rewarding experience.”
He almost didn’t get to follow that advice himself.
Growing up in a farming family, there were no plans for young Sukhi to go to college. But one day he and his older brother got on the wrong side of a violent neighbor. His parents decided it would be safer to send Sukhi 150 miles away to Mahinder College in Patiala to study architecture, which had always fascinated him. His tuition was paid by one of six scholarships available to village students.
With his academic focus and keen, inquisitive mind, he thrived in college. (As fate would have it, the violent neighbor wound up incarcerated in a Patiala prison nearby for an unrelated murder, and Singh would bring packages to him from their home village.)
From Mahinder College, Singh went to IIT Delhi for a master’s degree, then applied to pursue his doctoral studies at ten universities in North America. To this day he remembers the schools that accepted him—including Harvard, UC Berkeley and University of Ottawa, which awarded him a scholarship—and those that did not, including Stanford and Ohio State.
Married by then to his wife Charanjit, the couple arrived in Ottawa in the early 1970s knowing no one, and possessing only the maximum currency allowed—about $8 apiece. Their early years in America would be characterized by periods of deep financial uncertainty, including “times when we didn’t know where our next groceries were going to come from,” he recalls.
After one year in Ottawa, Singh transferred to UC Berkeley, which had and continues to have one of the top civil engineering programs in the nation. After getting his Ph.D., he worked for 11 years on seismic and other projects including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the San Pablo Clearwell Dam, before feeling the pull of teaching. He landed at Santa Clara University in 1986, drawn in part by the University’s proximity to many dams and other significant engineering projects to which he knew he could take his students for field trips.
Over 15 years, Singh served as chair of what were then engineering mechanics and civil engineering departments, and supervised their merger into the current civil, environmental and sustainable engineering department. He successfully helped raise funds for two new labs —structural end environmental—and expansion of the geotechnical and transportation engineering labs.
“In structural engineering, we teach students how to build buildings and bridges,” said Singh. “The students have to see and experiment.”
As a devout follower of Sikhism at a Jesuit university, Singh has written for Ignatian publications about why he feels so at home at Santa Clara. He has often cited the two faiths’ shared focus on social justice, religious and cultural diversity, and how both Jesuits and Sikhs seek God in all things. “My whole person has been welcomed here,” he wrote in one article.
Sukhi and Charanjit have two children: daughter Ramneet who graduated from Santa Clara in 1993 with a psychology degree and left practice to be a full-time mom to two now-grown sons in Sacramento; and a son Haryuvraj (Yuvi), a former almond farmer who is now a real estate broker in Fremont.
In 2002, Singh ran for Congress for the then-newly redrawn 18th Congressional District in Modesto, with a slogan of “Restoring Values to the Valley.” Although unsuccessful, his candidacy was seen as projecting a positive image for Sikh Americans and calling attention to the needs of the Sikh community in Modesto, where he previously lived.
Singh remains fit and active even into his eighth decade— walking 45 minutes every day along the Mission Peak Trail near his current home in Fremont, which he designed. He will begin phased retirement next year.
He keeps a manila envelope stuffed with printouts of the many kind words he’s received over the years from grateful students or colleagues.
“I’m here to help our students realize their maximum potential” he says. “That’s the most important thing.”
Prof. Sukhmander Singh (far left) taking a selfie with students at Uvas Dam. From left, Vanessa De La Rosa ’23, Niko Lopez ’23, Kevin Liang ’23, Maddie Ly ’24, Matthew Flores ’23, Shanelle Smith ’23, Rebecca Ridao ’23.