Working in the Social Sector


Dr.Balaji Sampath gave up a lucrative engineering career and life in the United States to work in the social sector in India. He now leads Eureka Child – AID India’s huge education project in Tamilnadu. Setting up and working with schools, revamping curricula, writing and publishing textbooks, setting up computer labs…and the list of things that Project Eureka Child does is huge. What’s the lure in the social sector? How can students work in the social sector? Read on…

You have a B.Tech from IIT Madras and a PhD from the University of Maryland in the US. How have your college degrees helped in your work in the social sector?

College education does prepare you with many skills. But, ultimately you have to learn a lot of stuff on the job. College education needs to develop in you the ability to learn – the ability to pick up resources and put them together.

My PhD involved searching for and defining a problem , look at what others have done and try other alternatives.  I was working mostly on mobile communication technology. Obviously, I’m not going to use mobile communication in this work – health and education.  Broadly, here also you need to define a problem – ‘what exactly are the problems the kids are facing?’ You want to basically define what you are trying to address in a crystal clear way. To define that children are not learning is too general. To define: children are not able to subtract; they find solving Newton’s law problems difficult; they are not able to read English words. When the problem is defined that way, it is easy to find a solution.

The social sector is perceived as working from the heart. Yes, we work from the heart, but the mind has to be used too to look at data and do analysis and apply results. It is a combination of engineering and social sense. We have a lot of engineers, MBAs and other educational backgrounds. And, we do have a lot of people from the villages. Solutions need to be tried, tested and appropriately used or eliminated.

What are the benefits and challenges of working in the social sector?

Beyond supporting ourselves, we, as humans, work to help others. This gives meaning to our work – whether it is in the corporate sector or social sector. Ultimately if it doesn’t help others or the society and does not give meaning to us, there is no value being carried forward.

Take for example, Google. The whole point of Google is that it helps people search for information. Google solves this problem and helps people. There seem to be so many problems that people can solve and also make profit out of it.

We need to realize that not all problems that need to be solved are going to generate profit. But, there are several interesting and important problems that need to be resolved. For example: In Tamil Nadu, more than 50% of kids cannot read or subtract at 5th standard. Similar figures can be seen across India.  This translates to millions of children going to school but not knowing to read basic sentences or do simple arithmetic.

These are problems that need to be cracked. Obviously you can’t make too much money out of these problems. You can’t live an extravagant life.  But the satisfaction out of it is immense and very meaningful. The probability of you creating a change is high since you are tackling problems without any competition.

How do you think students can contribute in this sector?

I think student life is a time to explore. At the college level, students have some amount of time in their hands. You should try out a bunch of things. Looking beyond the standard ‘get qualified-get a job’ thinking, if you start exploring and looking at what you really want to do, you will get started on a search of meaning all through life.

Find interesting things that excite you. You can get actively engaged in certain specific problems. Any problem that is worth solving is going to take a few years. For example- how do I get this bunch of kids to speak in English or how do I get them excited about science. Whatever problem you take, it is important to spend a few years – the 3 to 4 years at college would be a good time to keep coming back to the problem. And this can be converted into a project. If you are doing CS – create software that helps you do something; for Finance – ‘What kind of financial literacy can be imparted?’; and similarly for other branches.

You can’t sit at home and figure out what you like. You have to try things out, and explore.

You have written textbooks and revamped science education. How do you think students should approach science learning?

The most important thing to remember is – science is about our world. Forget what Newton said or Einstein did or Pascal said. Just look at what you feel about our world. It is important to learn what they said. But, ultimately you need to realize it – ‘What do I feel about this phenomena happening around me?’

Start imagining that you are cracking a problem and you will understand things better.  Learning all the equations and theories is critical. But at some point of time, experiments are a great way to learn. By experiments I don’t mean spectrometers or galvanometers. Take things around you and try stuff. Something interesting may happen or may not.  You don’t know. That’s the whole point of discovery. Experiment with your existing knowledge, come up with new explanations. You don’t need big labs and facilities. All the costly equipment doesn’t let you play around with things. More people discover things with junk stuff around them.  Learning how classical experiments are done is important, but more learning happens with experiments we try ourselves.

Edison tested 990 different filaments for bulbs that didn’t work. Knowledge of what didn’t work was critical for him to find the right filament at the 1000th try. That mindset is critical today for all people today and especially students of science.

Have you had experiences with interns? What is your view on internships?

There are 2 types of interns I’ve come across -

1.    Interns who come in because they have some course credits to be completed / need internship certificate. etc

2.    Interns who want to really learn and explore.

What they are here for reflects in how they work. People who come here to get certificates don’t make a big impression on us, nor do we make a big impression on them. We just work together for the stipulated amount of time.

But, there have been a lot of serious interns who come specifically to learn and contribute. One girl from the US came here and she spent about 8 months and she developed the whole reading package for us. She spent a lot of time working with the kids and trying to understand how they learned English. She came up with a set of very interesting set of methods and ideas. Someone else came in and prepared bad content, some come and work in villages to restructure schools, some work in legal literacy for women in India. We have a wide range of issues to work in.

It is a very good exposure for students particularly. This is a chance for them to get engaged practical work. You have to solve a live problem and everybody will learn in the process.

What are some things which you wish you had known in college?

Oh, lots of things! When I was in college, I didn’t get involved in literacy movements. I was studying in IIT and there were these camps going on in Taramani, I didn’t get involved with them at that time. Sometimes I feel terrible that I didn’t get started at that time.

There are certain books that I wish I had gotten introduced to when I was in college.

Anyway, the point is not about what could have been, the point is about ‘what is’. Some things have to happen when they have to.

Did you have a role model back in college?

There were many advisors I looked up to. We had an advisor called Dilip Veeraraghavan. He always kept talking about looking at social issues as a critical component of life. Also, Parameshwara Rao – I was  big fan his when doing my PhD. Dr.Ramanujam from IMSC , Dr.Sundarraman.., there are a whole bunch of people who are inspirations for all of us. Parameswara Rao was fully into social work. Dr.Ramanujam is a full time professor but he went to villages and organizes things. Dr.Sundarraman does this consistently and his programs have spread through the nation. They have all shaped my thinking.

Movies of course give you good, inspiring things to do. One favourite of mine is ‘Unnal Mudiyum Thambi’. A lot of us are inspired by things around us, but only by actively engaging in things ourselves do we actually see changes and make changes happen.

What sort of online resources do you use?

Internet gives you access to solutions that other people have come up with.  This is certainly important. But, not everything is on the internet. Often, while working with the poorer sections, lot of solutions that they have themselves come up with are not on the internet. Some government school teachers have come up with great ideas that they have been using in their classrooms. When you go talk to them you find that they do not use the internet or computers.

On the internet, Khan Academy has some interesting methods.  Kiruba’s blog is also a good read.  India Together also does some good reporting of issues across the country.

What is your advice to students interested in a career in social /educational sector?

I’d say give it a try as soon as you can. Try and figure out a problem that you want to solve. Make your life mission where you can stop thinking about yourselves and start thinking about the problem – a point where you dissolve and solving the problem becomes your ruling passion. It gives you a level of satisfaction that nothing else can.

Read more about Dr.Balaji Sampath’s work here:

Comments Closed