Director of Digital Equalization Jayaraman Subdarakrishna, right, explains the program to President Lawrence.
NEW DELHI – In an ill-lit, concrete-block building in a squalid squatters’ slum, Subham, 16, sits at a glowing computer screen, one of 10 in the room, painstakingly copying the story of a fictitious birthday party into a text file.
Neither the noises of pigs and cows around the puddle-pocked cricket pitch outside, nor the smell rising from the fetid water of the shantytown’s gutters can get in the way of Subham’s dream of becoming a computer engineer.
It is a dream made reachable by a program called Digital Equalization, administered by the American India Foundation, whose staff includes Payal Rajpal, M.A. ’08, a graduate of the Heller School’s program in sustainable international development.
Such programs, I learned today, are helping tens of thousands of youth across India. The need remains vast, but the opportunity for changing lives for the better is possibly greater than it has ever been.
Social justice and digital technology, I came to understand, is an underexplored area, full of opportunities for Brandeis students to experience some of the most distressing situations in the world and some of the truly novel solutions made available by technology already available to us.
As I watched Subham and a dozen others work to master software and learn critical reasoning amid grinding poverty and deprivation, I saw that it is now possible to take kids from an environment in which there cannot be anything even approaching a true library, and launch them into the world’s great virtual library.
What would be required to make that happen on a much larger scale? More people dedicated and trained to heal the world.
Payal told our little delegation that the American Indian Foundation would be glad to help. The staff is too small to take large numbers of interns or fellows, but it has experience with more than 100 nongovernmental organizations with projects in India, many of which are implementing Digital Equalization and other AIF programs.
Payal offered to facilitate contact between scores of reliable NGOs and undergraduates seeking summer internships. A colleague said their organization also is looking for partnerships with universities that can provide high-quality graduate students to AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, which seems very well suited to the Sustainable International Development program’s fieldwork requirement.
“We’re looking for a long-term relationship with a university,” Payal said. “If you organize the volunteers at Brandeis, we can put you in touch with reliable NGOs, We can help with the placements.”
It is a very intriguing opportunity, the sort of opening we are looking for in pursuing Brandeis’ strategy of selective, deep global engagement that is based on our own character and values. The AIF staff are repeat players; they are in country. They know where there is good supervision and training for interns or fellows. As it would be hard for us to get this kind of information on our own, the idea of having a partner like this as an interface to connect our students with NGOs could be important.
Payal’s own story demonstrates the benefits of deep commitments and thick connections of the sort that characterize Brandeis.
Born in Singapore of Indian parents, raised in Hong Kong, Payal did her SID fieldwork for Oxfam in Cambodia. After graduation she volunteered for a year in New York at an advocacy agency for youth of Southeast Asian descent. She then decided to move to India because her father had retired and her family had returned here.
She spoke little Hindi. She was scared. She reached out for help to then Brandeis network in India. One who responded was Sarah Figge Hussain, who graduated from SID in 2004. Sarah came to India to do her SID fieldwork and stayed; she now is employed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), works for the Brandeis-India Initiative too, and has become a fast friend of Payal — who now is offering new opportunities to Brandeis.
All of it — Payal’s history, the opportunity to connect with dozens of NGOs for internships, the efficacy of the Brandeis network — illustrates the Brandeis approach to social justice and to global engagement in action.