‘With loss came determination’: Cummins engineer encourages young people at Great Girls event

Columbus resident Niyati Tamaskar initially felt unsure about serving as the keynote speaker for Foundation for Youth’s Seventh Annual Great Girls, Wonderful Women event that streamed Thursday.

“Let me be honest, there were many moments in my teenage years that I didn’t feel like a great girl and sometimes, even now, there are instances where I don’t feel like a wonderful woman,” said the Cummins Inc. engineer. “And then there are moments where it didn’t matter if I was great or wonderful because the situation I was in wasn’t great.”

At age 13, she was in a horrible car crash with her sister and father.

She broke her collarbone, snapped her left wrist in half, and had a severe concussion. When she came to, she discovered her dad had died.

“My sister and I survived but we were left with a broken heart and this tremendous loss,” she said. “ … But with loss came determination. I was not going to let the odds of being a fatherless daughter define me.”

Eventually, with focused study and the support of her pediatrician mother, she became an engineer, just like her father.

In her wide-ranging and inspirational remarks, Tamaskar, now 38, detailed other losses, such as her journey through Stage 3 breast cancer a few years ago. Among other things, she told her audience that, amid struggle, it’s OK to feel sad or scared or less than positive in a world that she said sometimes overflows with what she termed “toxic positivity.”

“I’ve always held on to hope,” she said during a post-speech interview with co-emcee Kimberly Easton. “But there were many moments that were not positive and happy.”

The ongoing pandemic prevented the gathering from being in person. But, conversely, it also allowed all Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. sixth-graders to be part of the viewing audience, plus a group of high schoolers.

Co-emcee Easton praised Tamaskar’s story of remarkable accomplishment in the wake of deep sorrow and pain.

“It’s heartwarming,” Easton said. “It’s enlightening.”

Tamaskar, who also has presented a TED Talk on stigmas horribly linked with her illness, peppered her remarks Thursday with the need for more equality for women, including equal pay in the job market. She also outlined the need for need to equal respect amid the genders.

She mentioned a current University of Miami study that found that, when men and women express the same amount of pain, a woman’s pain is considered less intense based on gender stereotypes.

“Which is ironic because we are the ones that bear children,” Tamaskar said with dry wit.

She also emphasized the need for more women in fields of science, technology, engineering and math, plus politics, law and in corporate executive suites.

Fittingly, the pre-event music featured Sara Bareilles’ hit song, “Brave.” That dovetailed nicely with Tamaskar’s bold message and also the title of her first book, “Unafraid: A Survivor’s Quest for Human Connection,” about her cancer experience — and more.

“In both my books,” she said, “I share my story of struggle, where fear is an acceptable emotion and vulnerability a sign of courage.”

She mentioned that she regularly shares her story to empower others.

“Here’s me telling you, if I could get through all this — so can you,” she said. “Don’t let the odds define you. Be the maker of your own destiny.”