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Kristen Cyr
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After working for social justice in India,
grad finds new home in Rhode Island

May 18, 2016

Pawan Pandey Pawan Pandey

What's in a name? In India, a lot of things: your religion and your social status, for starters.

This didn't work for Pawan Kumar Pandey, 33, a General Studies major and recent immigrant to Providence. Long driven by a desire for equality, Pandey dropped the use of his surname in his country, because he didn't think it right that he benefit from a caste system that, though illegal, still regularly confers privileges unevenly in Indian society.

"If you look at my high school certificate or my passport, there's no last name. Pandey denotes that I am Brahmin," he explained, "and I left that last name because Brahmin is upper caste and I thought that wasn't fair."

Pandey further put his philosophy into practice when, after graduating from high school in Tohana, the small town in India where he grew up, he involved himself in various social movements, working among farmers in the slums.

But the social pressures that come with your name cannot easily be escaped, and so it wasn't long before he set to work at a desk job, making 45 cents per day as a typist.

"I was not able to buy anything," he said, "even in India."

Looking to establish a stronger income, he worked as a salesman for Airtel, a cellular phone carrier in the country, and was soon promoted to manager. But he still yearned for something more. He approached history professor, Lal Bahadur Verma, famous in India for his work with social justice, and ask for a job at a socio-political magazine he published. Again, Pandey didn't hesitate to shrug off the comforts that so many would have taken for granted.

"He said he couldn't pay me, but I said I wanted to join him as long as he could give me shelter and food. So I left my job as a salesman and I started working for free," he said.

His reputation as a hard and dedicated worker caught the attention of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country. When one, the Samaj Vikas Development Organization, an NGO that specialized in worldwide sanitation improvement, offered him a position as a communications consultant, he jumped at the chance, not knowing his life would soon change dramatically.

Pandey's story is as much a love story as it is a story of achievement. He met Stephanie Abbott, who is now his wife, through a mutual friend when she was in India doing research for her master's degree. The couple married four years ago and soon after settled in Rhode Island, where Abbott is the program manager for the Brown-India Initiative/South Asia Studies at Brown University's Watson Institute.

For the first time, Pandey was not only out of his country, but completely out of his element. He had some humorous realizations about American social quirks – namely, that when people ask how you are, they're not really expecting much of an answer beyond "Fine, thanks." He recalled hiding away in the house for weeks when he first moved here, able to understand some English but unable to communicate reliably.

"Stephanie told me, 'No, you can't close yourself up at home. At one point, you've got to go out,'" he said. "She left me some money for coffee and told me to go buy myself a coffee. It was a big thing for me!"

Pandey is warm and personable, with an easy smile and a confident, deliberate way of communicating. But at that moment in Seven Stars on Hope Street, he found himself ill at ease. "I'd never talked to anybody," he said, chuckling as he told the story of wrangling with the panoply of choice. "I had heard of a cappuccino, so I asked for that. Then she wanted to know what kind of milk I wanted, and I thought – 'I don't know! Milk is milk!' So I said, 'Cow?' and then I asked for sugar, and she asked me what kind of sugar! I couldn't believe it."

Over the years, the coffee ordering has gotten easier – in part because of the English as a second language classes he started to take at CCRI, and in part because he took Abbott's advice to heart and built a new community in Providence.

"I love people. I love talking to people, and I love listening to them," he said, adding that after working with AmeriCorps reading books to children, he knew it was time to further his education and establish himself in a field he loved.

That field is computer science – no small feat for a man who once failed math twice in high school. "I was always a very curious student," he said. "I could do a lot of other things. Math and physics could not be that hard. I had to prove to myself that I could do it." And he did, graduating this month with a 3.96 GPA.

Pandey excelled by making use of resources like Access at the college, and jumped into student life full force, being elected to as the director of activities for the Flanagan Student Government, serving as a Student Ambassador and volunteering with the International Club. Above all, he'd found a new home.

"My story is not a story of struggle. My story is a story of love and hope. Once you start doing the big thing, you might face challenges," he said. "But there will always be people who will help you at CCRI."

All the while, Pandey has never stopped lending a helping hand to others, and it's provided him with some of life's richest moments. Recently, he took a trip with the club to Haiti, where he worked to build a school. Though his classmates found the abject poverty shocking, it was something Pandey had seen before. In fact, back in India, it was in slums very much like the ones in Haiti where he learned what he called his most valuable lesson about education – not from a well-known leader, but from a humble woman named Durga Devi.

"She didn't know how to write. She lived in a slum. Her whole house was just two tables and four poles," he said. "She was using all of her money to pay for her children's education, but I saw that most of the people, even after getting a degree, still lived in the same slum. I asked her – 'What's the point?'

"She told me that it is quite possible that even after getting education you might end up cutting the same grief and misery, but you will cut it differently," he said. "Every person has a story and something to teach us. We need to just pay attention."

Pandey said he plans to make his next home at either Brown University or the University of Rhode Island, and hopes to continue his conquering of math and science, eventually using his degree to develop software applications that will help others understand those subjects he used to struggle with.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16