Helen Thimmayya, Women’s Christian College, Chennai

Creating Opportunities for Exposure

As an educator, Helen Thimmayya always encouraged her students to look beyond the classroom. “I liked to take them outside and get them to intersect with society – this builds the person,” she said in a recent interview. “Students can be insular, being focused on their own growth,” she added, so the challenge for educators is to expose them to people and ideas that will help them develop socially as well as intellectually. That desire to build her students’ sense of community and connection infused her long career at Women’s Christian College (WCC) in Chennai, India.

Dr. Thimmayya was a 2002-2004 United Board Fellow – a member of the first cohort – and her placements at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines and Saint Mary’s College in the United States showed her new ways of connecting students to a broader community. “At Ateneo, I saw how students were brought into service-learning,” she recalled. “It made a strong impression on me to see how students interacted, so willingly, with marginalized people.” When she returned to WCC, she built service-learning into her journalism course, and in her feminist perspectives course, she encouraged students to take internships at nongovernmental organizations. “I wanted them to see that the stories of simple people have deep meaning,” she said.

Dr. Thimmayya (seated, second from left) with colleagues at Women’s Christian College.

Dr. Thimmayya found her placement at Saint Mary’s College equally inspiring. “The atmosphere was so empowering,” she reflected. “The faculty had such clarity about what they were doing and could tie their work to the vision of the college.” She also found student governance at the college to be interesting. “Students were focused on social issues and debating ways to address them – they were vocal about wanting to make changes.”

Nearly 20 years after her fellowship experience, Dr. Thimmayya remains grateful for the exposure it provided and she is inspired to give back in support of others. “Because of my Christian background, I am conscious of being part of a community, of being interdependent,” she said, “and I was aware that other people’s donations to the United Board made it possible for me to be part of this program.” It is her hope that many Asian educators will have similar opportunities. “People blossom, learn new things, gain more confidence, learn more about the world and their place in it,” she said, “and all this happens because of exposure.”