20 Years of Serve-Learn-Lead: Rachna Mathur

On January 26, 2001, the Gujarat Earthquake struck — an enormous tragedy for the state and for India. With the aid of allies, Gujarat would be eventually rebuilt, yet the earthquake had lasting effects on education, health, migration, and livelihoods. It was in these aid efforts that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and United States President Bill Clinton joined forces in mobilizing the Indian diaspora in the US to form the American India Foundation (AIF) in the spring of 2001, with a mission of strengthening the US-India bridge to make a tangible difference on the ground in India.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, AIF launched the AIF Service Corps Fellowship program to offer young people the opportunity to support local communities in post-disaster rebuilding, and to build strong ties between civil society in both countries to foster mutual understanding and long-term collaboration. During the summer of 2001, the inaugural class of Fellows consisted of twenty-one talented individuals who would serve with AIF and its partner organizations in Gujarat and other states that migrants had sought refuge in. These twenty-one pioneers were driven by the spirit of service and their desire to strengthen change in India after an unprecedented disaster. Now, twenty years later, we look back on that first cohort of Fellows — where they’ve been, what they’re doing, and how their time with AIF has stuck with them since. 

Close-up of Rachna.
AIF Fellow Rachna Mathur, class of 2001. Image courtesy: Rachna Mathur.

Rachna Mathur is one of those Fellows — she was placed as part of AIF’s inaugural Digital Equalizer initiative in Bangalore, with an education company called EduFirst, where she aided in computer programming and writing work, to bring “computer-based learning [to] underprivileged areas.” Being a part of AIF’s groundbreaking mission was a deeply rewarding experience for Rachna — not only could she meld her love of service with her respected homeland roots, the experience provided her with lessons and skills she carries with her today.

A first-generation Indian-American, Rachna grew up in New Jersey. Growing up in a household where art and music flowed freely, and having access to computers early, she was able to explore her passions. Rachna’s interest in mathematics and STEM was cultivated in high school, leading her to pursue a B.S. in Computer Science at Arizona State University (ASU). At ASU, she took a one-semester course in the coding language C++, where she realized “so many students dropped out, because they couldn’t grasp the fundamental concepts of coding.” Rachna was eager to find a way to help, leading to her becoming a C++ tutor for the students in that very class. “I would make people stand up, and I would teach them how to code through movement, and suddenly I found 100 people coming to my exam review sessions.”

She also brought her unique perspective as a global student to her college campus. “Your cultural background, your religious background, it all kind of ties into what your perspective is,” she explains. During her time at ASU, Rachna’s deep connection to her heritage and service led her to become involved with local Arizona initiatives raising funds and awareness for causes in India.

“This idea of charity, of service to one another,” Rachna says, “has been in my head since I was a kid.”

At this time, the AIF Service Corps Fellowship program was selecting its very first cohort of young professionals who were imbued with a spirit of giving back in the aftermath of the earthquake. The Fellowship’s unique, independent hands-on approach deeply appealed to Rachna — who eagerly applied to become a Fellow during her last year of college. To her, it seemed like a natural extension of her “background with India and non-profit work.”

“I thought being a part of this program would give me such independence and confidence to just go out and help. And out of 200 applicants… they thankfully selected two for Computer Engineering, including me.”

While Rachna was there to contribute to the community, she realized that she had further strengthened her spirit of service. Reflecting back, she revisits the significance of what she witnessed while on the ground: “I visited the villages, and to see the kind of hands-on work being done shattered my ego. That was a moment of humility to see what was happening on the ground there, what people were capable of… seeing firsthand experience of homelessness, of struggle…. That’s what’s changed my life.”

Being an AIF Fellow made another lasting impression on Rachna — sparking her with a deep love for Kathak, a classical Indian dance form. “I was the worst dancer as a child,” she admits. Yet exposed to the art form during college and further during her time with locals through AIF, she wanted to learn more. “I started it because I went to Bangalore. I’d do my work with AIF, I’d go by rickshaw for 45 minutes to this teacher’s house and practice for three hours with her, and then I’d practice by myself. In all of my free time, I was dancing.”

Rachna credits her time with AIF as a major factor in shaping her path forward. “That sort of shifted my own confidence in what I could do,” she explains, “and the experiences that they created have influenced how I teach and how I affect people.” The values she gained in Bangalore have stuck with her later into her career and life — as she puts it, “shaping [her] ability to adapt and to empathize with others.”

The experience of being an AIF Fellow is something she will never stop looking back on with appreciation. “What [AIF] gave me has changed my life, and it has changed how I try to help everyone else,” says Rachna.

Her passion for STEM has taken her to founding and becoming the CEO of her very own EdTech initiative: STEMology Club, an after-school STEM enrichment program for children and youth in Arizona. The organization’s mission is to tap into a child’s natural curiosity to understand their world around them and help them discover their “inner STEMologist.” Rachna and her team organize after-school clubs, STEM pop-ups, camps, and educational resources that are carefully designed to foster creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration — all critical skills for the future. As for the passion for dance that she cultivated during her time in the AIF Fellowship — it has since become one of her finest skills, and she has taught the classical dance form Kathak to both kids and adults in Texas and Arizona.

Rachna and her team hosting an interactive booth at the fair.
STEMology Club Booth at AZ Sci Tech CSO Fair 2019: After being on a panel discussion for 6-8th graders discussing life as a woman engineer, Rachna had the opportunity to share her STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) passion with families. Image source: https://about.me/rachna.mathur.

Considering the impact that the pandemic has had on the education space globally, we asked Rachna: “What role do you think digital education plays in the post-pandemic education space, here in the States?”

She says:

“The first thing I think about when it comes to digital education [after COVID] in the US  is around DEI – diversity equity and inclusion. Like many folks, I see our education space, especially K-12, being morphed permanently to include hybrid learning modes and thereby increasing inclusion for remote learners, for learners with disabilities, and allowing families to organize their lives differently when education has a possibility of being hybrid.

For K-12 which is the space I operate in, I still feel the majority learning will happen on site but this has opened the eyes of educators, parents and administrators to include or expand student centric learning modes, self-learning, leveraging digital solutions for equity etc.”

Kids building a gadget with legos and other materials.
Books N Bots Summer 2019: Kids 2nd-4th took a 3-week summer course on learning about AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics through an in-depth literature study of “The Wild Robot”  (Collaboration between STEMology Club & JohnsonVille). Image source: https://about.me/rachna.mathur.
Laya wearing a "Books and Bots" tshirt, posing in front of a book copy of "The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown, along with self-made mini robots on the table..
Rachna’s daughter Laya at the STEMology Club Booth at AZ Sci Tech CSO Fair 2019, showcasing some of STEMology’s gear for middle and high school students. She wants to be a geologist or paleontologist when she grows up. Image source: https://about.me/rachna.mathur.

Rachna concludes: “My hope is to see hybrid modes of learning become the norm, expansion of internet hardware and infrastructure to reach remote corners of the country, and low cost to free options to access and own digital devices for learning!”

STEMologist's Code of Conduct: Respect each other & equipment, Raise your hand for questions but ask lots of questions, Believe in yourself, Be attentive in class, Work together to solve problems, Take turns & share equipment, Listen when others are talking, Remember the 4 Cs: Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking & Creativity. Have Fun!
Every student signs the STEMology Code of Conduct on their first day of class. Image source: https://about.me/rachna.mathur.

That’s a hope we share with Rachna. We’re grateful for her service as a Fellow and wish her all the best with STEMology Club through COVID and beyond!

Rachna, her husband, and her two kids posing with Arizona State University tshirts on the beach.
Rachna and her family showing some ASU alumni pride on the beach (“Go sun devils!”). As the next step in her career of 20+ years as an engineer, dance instructor, and STEM educator, Rachna has decided to go back to school to pursue a Doctorate of Education (EdD), designed for not only formal educators but people like her who teach in alternative settings and lead nonprofits. Image courtesy: Rachna Mathur.

PS: Check out Rachna’s 5 tips for remote learning. If you have an elementary schooler at home, you’ll appreciate it. For advice on how to make iPads, YouTube, and browsing safe for kids, check out her blog.

Maher Adoni is an 18-year old student living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. In October 2020, he won the first-ever youth essay competition organized by the India Philanthropy Alliance, a coalition of US-based organizations that support poverty reduction in India. Maher's essay on "The Democratization of Rural Indian Education" focuses on ways to make education in India more equitable with the help of technology and Indian-American youth volunteers (read here: https://www.indiaphilanthropyalliance.org/essaycompetition/maher-adoni). Maher decided to donate the grant prize of $1,000 to AIF in support of the Learning and Migration Program (LAMP) and the Digital Equalizer program because he felt that they align best with his personal values and what he sought to express in his essay. Maher is passionate about journalism and is looking forward to starting college in the fall of 2021.

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