Economics teacher aged 21

Last updated: 10 October 2017 From the section Muhammad Yunus

Following his Master's Degree, Muhammad Yunus joined in the Bureau of Economics as a research assistant to the economical researches of eminent Professor Nurul Islam - later a National Professor of Bangladesh - and Rehman Sobhan, one of the key forumulater of the famous Six Points.

However, if the Boy Scouts was young Yunus's first passion, then teaching was not far behind. He first practiced this by instructing his little brothers. In 1961 Yunus returned to his old college, Chittagong College, and secured his first professional job: lecturer in economics. Aged only 21, Dr Yunus found himself teaching to students who were almost as old as him.

He remained in the teaching post for the next four years.

For as long as I can remember I have thought of myself as a teacher, and I still do even today.

My younger brothers recall that I loved teaching them, and that I insisted that they get only top grades in school. And if my younger siblings did not do well they had to come and answer to me why they were not doing as well as they should.


In 1961 Muhammad Yunus, the son of a prosperous Muslim jeweller, was fresh from earning a master's degree at DU, which was Bangladesh's most prestigious seat of higher education.

After graduation, he accepted a position as an economics instructor at Chittagong College. Yunus, just 21, was an impatient young man brimming with self-confidence, optimism, and ambition. With the first phase of his professional training complete, he felt it was time to launch on of the many projects he had toyed with during his student days.


First venture into business

While teaching at Chittagong College, Yunus tried his hand at private business. When he was a undergraduate in Dhaka University he founded a nationally circulated literary magazine called Uttaran (Advancement) . In the process of putting out the publication, he was surprised to learn that virtually all local packaging, up to and including the printing on cigarette packets, was being done in West Pakistan. The biggest industry was located in Lahore. It was very rare to find Bengali entrepreneurs those days. However "as a nationalist Bengali", he knew that they could manufacture it more cheaply in East Pakistan. It could be a lucrative business. So he promised himself to try do it someday.

Soon after settling in Chittagong he began researching how he might follow through on this idea. With financial support from his father, Yunus made a fact-finding trip to West Pakistan and had the good fortune to meet a Bengali who was involved in a Swedish-Pakistani packaging venture . The man showed Yunus the ropes of the business and provided some tips on how to get started. The following year he set up a packaging and printing plant and bought the necessary machinery after securing a half-million taka ($12,500) loan from the government-owned Industrial Development Bank and receiving government clearance. In due course, the presses began to roll, providing employment to 100 people.

Their products included: cigarette packages, boxes, cartons, cosmetics boxes, cards, calendars and books. This turned out to be a successful project, making "a very attractive profit" within two years.

Yunus, responding to pressure from his father Dula Mia, repaid the loan to the Industrial Bank ahead of time, with interest. It was very rare for a bank to have its loan repaid early and in full. Impressed by the young man's business acumen, the bank offered Yunus a 10-million taka ($250,000) loan to finance the expansion of the operation. However, Yunus refused the offer after his father "would not hear of it".

Earning money had never been a concern or a worry of mine. I was never really tempted to become a businessman, but the packaging factory was a way of proving to myself and to my family that I could be a commercial success if I wished.

My father was the chairman of the board, and I was the chief executive officer. My father was extremely reluctant to have us borrow from a bank. He comes from the old school that did not believe in commercial credit. Having a bank loan outstanding made him so nervous and so worried that he made me pay the loan back early. We were probably the only start-up business that ever repaid a loan before it became due. When I went to repay the bank, they offered us a 10 million taka loan for setting up a paper plant, but my father would not hear of it.

This experience gave me a lot of self-confidence. It confirmed my belief as a young man that I had no need to worry about money. I was teaching half the time, and being a businessman the other half.


Travel to America for Ph.D.

Awarded Fulbright scholarship

After dividing his time between teaching and running the factory, Muhammad Yunus realised that his first love was teaching. To get on the academic fast track, though, required a Ph.D. from abroad. In 1965 he applied for and received a Fulbright scholarship to carry out his postgraduate study in the United States. It would be his third trip abroad – and his first as an adult. His previous two trips were as boy scout but now he’d be travelling all alone.

I dearly loved teaching. So when I got the opportunity to get a Ph.D. in America I jumped at the chance to go there on a Fulbright scholarship.

Dr. Muhammad Yunus,

Having expressed a preference on his application form for studying "development economics", Yunus was rather improbably placed at Vanderbilty University in Nashville, Tennessee. He had never heard of Vanderbilty before, but when he located it on a globe he noticed that Tennessee had the distinction of being almost exactly halfway around the world from East Pakistan.

Already an experienced traveller, Yunus relished the opportunity to expand his horizons again. His only anxiety came from what he read about the civil rights movement in the southern United States. Yunus was concerned that he'd be considered black and be subjected to harassment. The fear, as it turned out, was unfounded: white classmates would inform him that only Negroes were at risk; brown fellows like him, he was assured, had nothing to fear.


Culture shock

Yunus arrived at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder during that summer. The university - also commonly referred to as CU-Boulder, CU, Boulder, or Colorado - is located at the foot of the picturesque Rocky Mountains. The great cultural differences between American life and Pakistani life shocked 25-year-old Yunus. The liberal attitude, friendly banter between teachers and students, free-mixing of men and women was a far cry from the conservative environment he grew up in. It was also the time of rock-and-roll and experimentation of drugs. Alcohol consumption was rife.

My arrival that summer of 1965 at the University of Colardo campus in Boulder was quite an experience for me.


However, Yunus, a lifelong teetotaller, admired America but maintained his traditional values and customs. He loved American society for its multiculture, diversity, and the freedom it gave to its citizen, but never lost track for his reason for being there: to complete his "mission" of studying and return to his beloved Pakistan. He had no intention of residing permanently in America and longed to come back to his motherland as soon as his Ph.D. was over. However, since it was very expensive to travel abroad, he spent his summer holidays teaching at the University of Colorado Boulder rather than return to Pakistan. This long absence only made him more eager to return.

From University of Colorado to "depressing" Vanderbilt University in Tennessee

As part of his Fulbright scholarship Yunus was required to attend Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, Nashville. So in the summer of 1966 he left University of Colorado and headed towards Nashville. To his horror, the setup in Tennessee was the exact contrast to the vibrant, multi-cultural and lively Colorado. He was the only Bengali in the campus and the only Fulbright scholar at Vanderbilt that year. Yunus began to hate his student life at Vanderbilt and became "depressed...lonely and homesick".

The first semester classes bored him and the one-year master's program in economic development was a 'light master's', superficial compared to the far more advanced master's degree he already had. One teacher of European history had even failed him because he wanted Yunus to "spout back exactly what he had said". Thankfully, the University recognised Yunus superior academic ability and put him in advanced economics classes and switched him onto Ph.D. courses after he scored in the 98% on the Graduate Record Exam.

After a summer in Boulder, surrounded by students from many different countries, and on a beautiful campus full of sunlight, my scholarship required me to attend Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Here, I had a completely different experience. Arriving in Nashville, I was so depressed I was almost in tears. It was such a tiny insignificant airport and there was no student campus like the one I had so enjoyed at Boulder. The city looked so unattractive after the wide-open grand vistas of Boulder.

Vanderbilt had only recently been desegregated, and the tiny restaurant I used, The Campus Grill, had been 'whites only' until six months previously. There were few foreign students, and no Bengalis. I was lonely and homesick. The winter was cold, and I was not at all prepared for it. My dormitory, Wesley Hall, was so bad we quickly named it 'Wesley Hell'. It was old and smelly and the heating pipes banged and knocked all night long. The showers were old-fashioned open stalls. But I was so shy and prudish, I could not possibly undress and shower in front of all those strangers. (Even today I would be shocked by such a thing). So I took my shower wearing a lungi, a full-length skirt to cover the body from the waistline down, as people do in Bangladesh when they take a bath.


Romanian Professor Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen: best teacher I've ever had

In his second year at Vanderbilt Yunus enrolled in a statistics course taught by Professor Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian immigrant trained at the Sorbonne in France. Prof. Georgescu's lectures had left Yunus spellbound and had profound impact on him.

The one thing which made my stay at Vanderbilt worthwhile was my association with a famous Romanian professor by the name of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen.

...I was most fortunate in having such a difficult and unforgiving task master for I don't think I ever had a better teacher.

I learned from him certain simple lessons that I never forgot, and which stood me in good stead when building up Grameen.

Though Professor Georgescu-Roegen became my mentor, I can't say we had a close or warm relationship. He was an old-fashioned European teacher who kept his distance. The books he wrote were much too erudite, impossible to understand, but he spoke clearly and concisely. He was a mathematician, a philosopher and had been finance minister of Romania until 1948, when he had to leave and seek political asylum in the United States. He spoke so beautifully that, taken word for word, his classes were a work of art. I studied advanced statistics with him as well as economic theory and Marxism, and he gave me straight As.

As his teaching assistant, I learned to respect precise models which showed me how certain concrete plans can help usp understand and construct the future.

I also learned that things are never as complicated as we imagine them to be. It is only our arrogance which seeks to find complicated answers to simple problems.


The elegance of Georgescu's two-and-half-hour orations touched something deep inside him. He and other admirers compared him them to symphony orchestra performances. To Yunus, Georgescu's genius was in reducing statistics to its essence, breathing life into vapid concepts by using storytelling and simple mathematics. Never had Yunus been in the presence of a master teacher, the kind who leads students down the long road to independent thought punctuated by "Aha!" realisations that are never forgotten. Now that he was under the wing of such a person, he couldn't get enough of it.


First wife is an American-Russian

Growing up in a conservative country like Pakistan – and especially in Chittagong District, which is one of the more religious parts of the country – young Yunus was very shy around women. He always thought he’d have an arranged marriage like others and was happy to follow that traditional path. But fate had other ideas.

In 1967 while seated in the Vanderbilt library one day, reading, a "beautiful girl with shoulder-length red hair and blue eyes" came up to him and asked him where he was from. Yunus replied Pakistan and the pair began light conversation. Her name was Vera Forostenko. She was doing her master’s work in Russian literature. She was born in the USSR but she and her family came to America soon after the Second World War (1939-45) and settled in Trenton, New Jersey.

She was friendly, spontaneous and curious about me and my background.


The two foreigners met more and more regularly. Soon their friendship turned to love. In 1969, two years after meeting, Vera left Tennessee and moved back to her family home in Trenton. With his Ph.D. coming to an end, Dr. Yunus was already making plans to return to East Pakistan. Vera wanted to go with him. Dr. Yunus recommended otherwise. He knew that she would have a difficult time with the culture as it was alien to her. But for every reason he presented her – e.g. tropical weather, different culture, women treated differently, etc. – Vera found a counter-reason. She was "very stubborn" and succeeded in changing his mind.

The two lovers married in 1970 and settled in a small, quiet town called Murfreesboro, 50 miles south of Nashville where Dr. Yunus was teaching as an Assistant Professor of Economics at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). He remained in this role from 1969 to 1972. However, their quiet life was short-lived.

While his career and life was blossoming, events in Dr. Yunus’ home of East Pakistan were taking dramatic turns. Very soon a new country would be born: Bangladesh.

Dr. Muhammad Yunus, like all other Probashis (foreign-based Bengalis), stuck thousands of miles away from their motherland, were about to play their most crucial part in life.