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Lokvani Talks To Sonal Patel

Nirmala Garimella

Sonal Patel was awarded the President's Gold medal for volunteer service  completing more than 500 hours for the organization Vision Aid.

We talked to her about the work  and the benefits of Volunteering.

Share with us a little bit about your background ? 

 I am originally from Mumbai.  My educational background is inScience. I have a PhD in Experimental Atomic Physics.  My husband is also a scientist (astronomer).  When our son was born, I became a 'full time mom' for about a year.  That was the most rewarding experience, and I decided not to pursue research or full time jobs. Since then, I got involved in many part time teaching positions  in universities where my husband has worked. I have taught physics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst,  and have also taught web technologies at Harvard Extension school.I have also managed my own consulting business in Cambridge.

 Now I am taking many classes on various Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) platforms and apply what I learn in various volunteer and professional  activities I am involved in.

 Can you describe the work that you do at Vision Aid. How did it start?

 I am currently a volunteer mentor in Vision-Aid’s Python trainingprogram.  We started the pilot program in 2016, to teach programming to blind students using material from MIT.  Vision-Aid invited me to join their team of passionate and committed volunteers.  I joined this mission with  a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity.  Our initial plan was to teach first four chapters from the MIT class that was also the first class in Computer Science on edX from MIT.  I had completed that class in the very first iteration. That was the main reason I was invited to join this big experiment in teaching blind students in India. 

 Since then we have moved to using the course material from an introductory Python class  by University of Michigan professor Dr Chuck.  Many of our students completed their basic python training using this material and have moved on to taking more advanced classes on MOOC platforms like edX and Coursera.  I am fortunate to have connected with many of my students. I stay connected with all of them on regular basis and have learned a lot from them.

 In 2018 Vision-Aid started a Junior Program and I was very fortunate to work with these kids from various parts of India, like Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. Now they are all taking the class on the Coursera platform and we meet weekly for the interactive and lively mentoring session.Vision-Aid sponsors these students to participate in the inclusive hackathon in collaboration with other organizations.

 In your mind, how important is volunteering important at a Non-Profit?

 For any non-profit organization, dedicated volunteers are extremely important.  They are the backbone of the organization. No non-profit organization can function well without the strength of the  committed volunteers.  Here enthusiastic contributions  by volunteers is very important to carry forward new initiatives and to sustain the already developed programs.

 What motivates you to volunteer your time and skills ?

 My professional and personal  experience is in education and online learning.  I am also a good connector.  I want to use  my skills to help reduce inequality in this world.   I want to spread thelove of learning among younger generation.  I strongly believe that through high quality education we can reduce inequality in this world.  I also believe that true education should nurture our human qualities and help build a kinder and more empathetic society.  want to contribute towards democratizing education that is accessible and available to everyone including those who are  disabled.  strongly believe that our true success is determined by how we help others to succeed.  Volunteering is the noble job for everyone and anyone can volunteer at any capacity.

 How do students in India respond to this program?

 Vision-Aid program in python training is becoming very popular every year. Vision-Aid would love to add more volunteers who can provide quality mentoring and help us admit more students  each semester. Many of our students in India are now taking more advanced classes on MOOC platforms like Coursera and edX, Coursera supports their certificates through their financial aid program. Vision-Aid has also sponsored certificates of our students on the edX platform.

Here are some videos of students:

Aditi who is now pursuing her Masters at Georgia Institute of Technology


Bhargav who is a software engineer in Bangalore


Do you have other hobbies?

 I love children.  I am a 'mom' forever.  I love to go sailing on the Charles river in summer, as well as canoeing in Maine.  Currently, I am learning Chinese, which is now my newest hobby developed after I took the ten part series of history of China from HarvardX.   practice Chinese on DuoLingo daily and also practice on college campuses where I meet many visitors from China.  I am a regular volunteer at the MIT Museum where I have been involved in doing variety demonstrations.  I also love meditation and I practice meditation for about 2 hours daily.

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