Spotlight: Shoba Narayana '06
Shoba Narayana has been connected to WOCLN since her sophomore year at UMass Amherst in 2003. One day, she walked into the office by accident and walked into one of the best experiences of her college career. Shoba was part of the WOCLN spring training that year and explored the theme of being ‘caught between cultures.’ She began the journey of building a bridge between the different cultures she grew up with; Tamilian and American. WOCLN also provided an outlet for the many other interests she had such as photography, music, writing and dance. The office became a comfort zone for her; a safe space to come and ‘just be’, as she puts it. “It was where I found my voice and also connected with an amazing sister circle that still supports me to this day.”
After graduating with an MS and BS in microbiology from UMass Amherst, Shoba went on to pursue a career in science at Microbia in Cambridge, MA. Her work focused on genetically engineering microbes to replace industrial chemical processes. Although it was a positive work environment where she learned a lot, Shoba made the decision to follow her dream of making a journey to India after she had completed a year at Microbia.
Today, she is working at Olcott Memorial High School(OMHS) in Besant Nagar, Chennai which is located in the state of Tamil Nadu. Founded by Henry Steele Olcott, OMHS is a school for the underprivileged children mainly coming from the local fishermen communities. The school is over one hundred years old and it is part of the Theosophical Society (TS). The school is set amongst a beautiful scenery full of rich biodiversity which is part of the land that the TS protects and conserves.
Shoba has been working as an English teacher for 6th , 7th and 8th grades for the past seven months. Her other responsibility at the school is to build a network of ‘Friends of Olcott’ to support and fund OMHS. She creates the content and provides the photography for the website and monthly newsletter. In addition to these two jobs, Shoba enjoys creating different spaces for children to learn outside of the classroom.
In cooperation with the Padma Govindan Shakthi Center, a group that works on gender and sexuality issues, she has set up a Young Women’s Leadership Program for 10 ninth standard girls. The idea was to set up something similar to WOCLN training that fit the teenage level. Thus far, the group has participated in several workshops having to do with trust, voice, dance, yoga, writing, health and well being, gender inequality in society and media, and introspective art activities. Shoba and Padma work at getting local resource women to come in and facilitate workshops for the young girls. Shoba herself has also facilitated three workshops one of which was a mask-making workshop that she had been through when she was doing her training at WOCLN. “The mask-making workshop was one of the most important activities that helped to break the ice when I was doing the training. Part of the workshop is about building trust with the other women in the group and letting yourself be vulnerable as you literally put your face in someone else’s hands to apply the mask-making material. The other part of the workshop is about bringing elements of yourself out when decorating the mask. This was an important part of introspective self development for me.” Still connected to the network, Shoba was able to count on Jacqui Pinn, former WOCLN director, to send the necessary materials to conduct the workshop.
For the past two and half months, Shoba has also been driven to get back into scientific thinking by involving herself as a guide teacher for a group of five sixth grade students participating in the Tamil Nadu Science Forum. The project is on solid waste management and the students have implemented a plan for segregation of non-biodegradable garbage and composting of organic matter in the school. They are conducting experiments to find the best method of compost production and taking a look at the different microorganisms that do the work. The group is planning on bringing a similar solid waste management plan to the local slum community. Most of the garbage gets collected and dumped in landfills causing a host of problems for the environment. Shoba has rekindled her spirit for science through working with these kids. “It’s funny how I thought I was going in completely the opposite direction of my degree in microbiology but then the science had a way of creeping up again. I think the joy come in learning discovering new things with the kids. We feed off of each other’s energy and passion for the work.”
Read 'Friends of Olcott' Newsletter (PDF, 2MB)