Saigal reflects on time as 2012 INDIA New England Woman of the Year, relishes position as role model

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Rajani Saigal (right) and Anil Saigal (Photo by Dyuti Majumdar)

When 2012 INDIA New England Woman of the Year Ranjani Saigal spoke to the newspaper a few weeks after she won the award last June and said she was overwhelmed by the response she received from friends, former students and acquaintances from the past congratulating her. Almost a year later, she says the response has continued through the year and she has really relished her role, more than anything, as a role model for young children.

Saigal, who resides in Burlington, Mass., is a senior educational technologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of Lokvani.com, but those two passions only begin to crack the surface of a woman who touches the community in so many ways. Saigal is also co-chair of the TIE-Social Entrepreneurship group, serves on the board of MITHAS, the MIT Heritage of the Arts Society and is a classically trained dancer that has been teaching Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi at her dance school, Eastern Rhythms, for 20 years. She also works with several nonprofit organizations including VisionAID, Saheli, Udavum Karangal and Ekal Vidyalaya.

Through the eyes of her dance students, Saigal said she has really seen what kind of impact winning the INDIA New England Woman of the Year award can have on how she is viewed as a role model. She said that numerous students have approached her and said they want to become a Woman of the Year like her.

“Many young children and my students were very taken by it and said they would like to achieve that and do that at some point in their life,” said Saigal. “I tell them if you are really passionate and you care about things and you work hard to accomplish your goals you can become Woman of the Year… I also tell them it is very important to work hard to achieve your goals and excel at what you do and your goals should not just be directed at self improvement but improving the community around you… I think that is what the award is about.”

According to her, these kinds of interactions have reaffirmed for her the importance of mentoring children. She says she sees a great attitude in younger generations to find professional success but also have an impact on the world beyond that.

“This is a century of making a difference, whether it is just in the India community or outside,” she said. “Even the youngsters… they want to change the world… they want to do more, they want to help the underprivileged.”

Saigal also said winning the Woman of the Year award has really triggered her interacting with many new social circles. “Somebody put it very beautifully that it was wonderful to win the award because then I was able to meet many new people,” she said.

Saigal also said that many of her friends have said that her winning the award brings it down to earth a bit because they view her as an approachable person who is just one of them. “They say, ‘You are one of us and you won it and it made us very, very proud and very happy,'” she said.

Winning the Woman of the Year award even inspired her to start a new feature on Lokvani called “Woman of Influence.” She said the column has allowed her to talk to some very impressive women and hear their stories, which she has really enjoyed.

Saigal’s Woman of the Year reign has also found her doing some fund-raiser work that was new to her. One experience, in particular, that really thrilled her was taking part in the “55KM Walk for Ummeed,” which was held in Goa.

Saigal traveled to India earlier this year to take part and it was her first visit to the famous beach region.

Ummeed, meaning “hope,” is a nonprofit organization set up with the objective of helping some of Mumbai’s most deserving — children with developmental disabilities. Ummeed will help children with disabilities or at high risk for disabilities, reach their maximum potential and be included in society.

The fund-raising walk in Goa raised $80,000 for the organization and Saigal played her part, raising $8,000.

“That was a very unusual thing that I did. I have never been to Goa. It was a great way to see the beaches of Goa because we walked on the beaches,” she said. “It was so much fun… I walked with people that are doing so much phenomenal work with the underprivileged in India.”

Saigal also took part in a fund-raiser for the Adyar Cancer Institute in Madras. Organizers had seen her dance an original piece at another event and asked her if she could do it as part of their event. She joined forces with a couple of local music teachers to perform. The event raised $17,000 for the cancer institute. “It was their first fund-raiser. It was wonderful to be part of that,” she said.

As a senior educational technologist at MIT, Saigal works to help enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning using technology.

Saigal began her career in engineering with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay in 1981. She then came to the United States and received a master’s degree in the same disciple from the University of Florida in 1982. Following that she continued her education with a doctoral degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech. While at Georgia Tech she also met her husband Anil. She later followed Anil to Tufts University in Boston when he got a job there. Saigal also ventured away from civil engineering into computer science work while she was likewise working at Tufts. This led her to also complete a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Massachusetts in 1988.
Saigal worked at Tufts from 1986 to 2006, when she joined MIT. She got her start in the field of education technology at Tufts and continues this work at MIT.

She was one of the founding team of the New England Web portal a decade ago, along with her husband Anil, Nirmala Garimella, Anoop Kumar and the late Chitra Parayath.

In addition, she has a life-long passion for dance. Growing up in India, she trained in Indian classical dance. Through her dance school Eastern Rhythms, Saigal typically trains between 20-30 students at any given time. She also helps choreograph and organize many dance and cultural shows for local organizations and temples on occasions such as Independence Day, Republic Day and Shivarathri.

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