Story and Photo by Kathy McPherson
The first year of college hit Ashu Saxena hard. His family had moved from California’s Bay Area, where he had grown up, to upstate New York just a few days before he began classes at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. His brother-in-law died, leaving behind a young family, and Saxena came down with mono just before first-semester final exams. He dropped a class and made a C, both for the first time.
Sophomore fall didn’t start off much better — Saxena’s father had a heart attack, fortunately surviving after some anxious moments. And then things began to improve. Saxena, who was in Rensselaer’s engineering school, changed his major when he realized his course work was mapped out and was mostly engineering classes.
“I didn’t like having that restrictive nature. I was just still interested in too much,” he said. “Through my dad, I met the dean of science and he encouraged me to change my major to math.”
Saxena got aligned with two professors in the math department — “I still remember their names” — and they helped him look at his choices while majoring in math. He took ethics and a rhetoric and writing class and heeded the advice of a professor who “inspired me to pursue what I enjoyed doing. I think that college year, especially sophomore spring, I had a huge turnaround where I had earned straight A’s for the first time in my life. … To end up with straight A’s was somewhat of a miracle for me in the situation I was in, being in a really tough school and just having gone through so much during my early time there.”
Saxena thrived at Rensselaer, continuing interests in teaching and coaching that began his junior year of high school, running a club for children from a low-income housing project and writing for the school newspaper.
He graduated with a major in math of operations research and minors in education, management and philosophy, foreshadowing a career that in 2014 would bring Saxena to Durham Academy Upper School, where he teaches math, helps lead three student clubs and is assistant coach of varsity girls soccer.
The path was not without possible detours. During his junior year of college, Saxena was being recruited to work in financial services, insurance and actuarial science. Fall of senior year, while doing student teaching, he interviewed on Wall Street and Water Street in Manhattan.
“I had some very lucrative offers, and I didn’t pursue them. I saw myself and looked at what I like to do. I didn’t want to work in an office or even a fixed spot. And for me, it wasn’t really about the money. I tell my students, even now, this story. I was being offered a salary that is probably about one-and-a-half times as much as what I’m making after 30 years in teaching. Money that was being offered to me as a young 21-year-old, and I said no. Obviously, had I said yes and worked for 20 years, I would have retired long ago, but that wasn't in my plan and I chose not to do that.”
What he chose was to teach. He graduated from college a semester early and worked first as a substitute teacher, then accepted a job at Albany Academy for Girls when a teacher abruptly left with three months to go in the school year. He taught five math classes in a row, with five different preparations ranging from pre-algebra to AP Calculus — while taking classes for a master’s degree in secondary mathematics education at night and also coaching soccer.
“I guess things worked out well, and they kept me on. My first three and a quarter years of my career were at that school,” Saxena said.
His time in Albany, New York, was the beginning of an independent school teaching and coaching career (with two brief forays to public school teaching) that has taken him to The Potomac School in northern Virginia, to Charlotte’s Providence Day School, and now to Durham Academy.
Saxena is passionate about coaching soccer, a passion that began with a team of 13- and 14-year-olds he coached as a high school junior. The team had a 1–9 record going into the season tournament and ended up winning the tournament.
“To go back and win was enjoyable. But it wasn’t just about the win, it was about the growth of the kids for that season, that fall season,” he said.
A positive team culture and growth continue to be a priority, and Saxena’s coaching career took off on both the club and high school levels during his 13 years in northern Virginia. He was named the United States Youth Soccer Association National Girls Coach of the Year as well as the United States Olympic Committee National Developmental Soccer Coach of the Year.
He would often make the four-hour drive to Chapel Hill to watch the UNC women’s team, a perennial national powerhouse. He learned from and became friends with Anson Dorrance, coach of the UNC team, and began working at UNC’s summer soccer camps. In 2018, Saxena published a book, The Well-Rounded Soccer Coach, which is now in its second printing and features a foreword by Dorrance.
Family is also a passion for Saxena, and making the decision to teach and coach at Durham Academy was really a family move. Saxena and his wife, Neeta, were looking for a community where they would want to live long-term and a school they would want to send daughter Sunaina, now a DA rising third-grader, and son Shaylan, who will enter pre-k in August. They like to be involved as parent volunteers as often as their busy child care and work schedules allow (Neeta is a physician assistant for a nephrology practice).
The Saxenas share an Indian heritage. Ashu Saxena’s father came to Stanford University and Silicon Valley from Lucknow, India, in 1956 and his mother followed in 1958. They became American citizens, and their four children were born in this country.
Saxena leads the Asian American and Pacific Islander Affinity Group at the Upper School in conjunction with Chinese teacher Bonnie Wang. He said it has become “really a very important group to give both the students and the teachers who identify with Asian heritage a place of belonging and identity and a place to just really be. … We talk about being the only one. Sometimes it’s hard to be the only one in a classroom, whether you’re the only Asian or the only Black student or the only Muslim or the only Jewish identifier or whatever. So to have the Asian affinity group has been powerful, to have a space to belong.”
When students asked him to advise a Muslim affinity group, he agreed, although he identifies as Hindu and not Muslim. Saxena also advises Crossing the Divide, a student group that seeks to find common ground on political issues. The group grew out of a discussion when Saxena said he didn’t care about party names or ideological labels, but cared about moving forward with what’s good.
That’s also important to Saxena in his math classes. He teaches Precalculus with a Human Rights Focus, in which students can explore their interests, passions and dedication to social issues. In addition to teaching AP Calculus, Saxena taught Mathematics of Finance in the fall semester and taught economics in the spring.
“It’s funny how it all comes full circle in terms of majoring in math and coaching soccer, having that finance background and management background, and now it’s all kind of come back,” he said. “And at the same time I’m teaching the precalculus class, a class that involves some of the look of social issues.
“Being at DA, I’ve been able to do a lot with the classes and have a lot of independence that way to explore different areas.”