India Team
Front, left to right: Amulya Yandamuri, Chandrakala Vootkur, Veena Shukla. Back: Srinivas Sripada, Naveen Prathapaneni, Anil S Kumar, Shravan, Kandala Ramnarayan.
India Team
Front, left to right: Amulya Yandamuri, Chandrakala Vootkur, Veena Shukla. Back: Srinivas Sripada, Naveen Prathapaneni, Anil S Kumar, Shravan, Kandala Ramnarayan

Access to quality education is an ongoing challenge for an estimated 980 million people living in rural conditions in India—nearly 70 percent of the country.

It’s a predicament familiar to many Indians, including Naveen Prathapaneni, an IBM cloud solutions architect in Hyderabad, who decided to do something about the situation.

Today, Naveen and a team of IBM volunteers have spent several years working with an NGO to improve remote learning and mentoring programs, while also leading virtual counseling workshops.

The team received a 2018 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award from IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty.

IBM Volunteers spoke to Naveen about the multiple projects he and the volunteer team have undertaken and the thousands of students who have benefited.

Naveen, what motivated you to volunteer to help students?
I come from a rural background where most of my schooling was done at rural schools that had minimal access to information and limited exposure to career opportunities. After schooling, I could not choose a career path that aligned with my interests and passion. I had to face several challenges to position myself in the market to begin a career I was truly interested in. This experience motivated me to focus on rural education and helping students.

How did you begin your volunteer service?
Almost a decade ago, I started an association with the Nirmaan organization, which is an NGO focused on education, livelihood and social leadership. Specifically, I worked on the Vidya Help Line that provides life skills and career guidance programs—they had received an IBM grant and we were scaling up their call center operations.

The Vidya Help Line Nirmaan objectives are pretty much aligned to my dream project of assisting students from rural areas in building careers aligned to their personal interests. I personally believe that education is a fundamental right and everyone in society needs access to quality and affordable education to fulfill their aspirations.

Do you recall any memorable experiences with the students?
I was a remote mentor for the college in Khammam in Telangana state. I had a chance to speak one-on-one with 84 students during our sessions—all of them from nearby villages with families of low economic profile. Everyone had big dreams, while also having many societal, personal and economic challenges; plus, a fear of expressing their feelings, and no access to information or even how to access information that could be useful to them.

Did that give you additional motivation to help?
Yes, knowing about these problems from a personal experience, I then initiated a remote mentoring program to help students build confidence and get them ready to face a competitive world. Doing this in-person, face-to-face would not be possible because of costs, manpower and logistics. I started first by connecting mentors with students and frequent interactions in smaller groups; we did career workshops, code camps and English class. These programs are showing good results in shaping their careers.

You and the IBM volunteer team have led several projects with Nirmaan.
Yes, we are working on many solutions to positively impact the problem. Let me tell you about some of them.

  • We created a mobile app for remote mentoring called MobiCounsel.
  • We developed a bot using Watson to help counselors answer questions.
  • Over 20 volunteers are providing business and communication training for students.
  • Using webcasts, we conducted eight weeks of programming and coding classes.
  • Nirmaan facilitated STEM workshops in various schools led by me and Ramnarayan. We also conducted a workshop to “teach the teachers” on how to design and deliver STEM activities.
  • Thanks to an IBM Community Grant, and with help from alumni, we set-up a digital study circle at the Government Degree College in Khammam to provide job orientation, trainings, workshops, and materials for students to prepare for competitive exams and job placements.
  • We have ongoing career workshops in which over 70 IBMers have been trained to act as on-call remote counsellors.

Also, we conducted a one-year pilot, starting in 2018, of a remote mentoring approach that has provided us with a lot of insight. It’s an example of integrating community services right from education to livelihood.

Tell us about the MobiCounsel mobile app
It is actually both a mobile app and an approach for kiosks. I proposed and initiated the development of the mobile/kiosk-based app to help the Nirmaan Education Helpline scale up their operations in disseminating career information to students, teachers and even counsellors with minimal effort. I also made further enhancements to add cognitive features like a chat bot to answer career-related queries.

The kiosk is touch-based and allows students to connect to the Education Helpline through a toll-free number. Students can register and complete the pre-assessment form and choose two careers choice of interest. The system asks a few questions – a psychometric test – and based on certain parameters, suggests a preferred career. Student can browse the careers and see videos related to the career, know about the path to achieve that career and other information like availability of hostels, Naveen in workshop
Naveen Prathapaneni leading a workshop for students
India Team
Naveen Prathapaneni leading a workshop for students
total cost of the course, scholarships, and more, including list of colleges and entrance exams.

Do former students ever reach out to you to share their experiences?
Of course, quite often. One student who studied in a rural school, contacted me two years ago to express her gratitude for motivating her to pursue engineering and mentoring her to overcome her career challenges. She updated me that she’s working at a start-up company in Gujarat. Also, recently one of my mentees secured 1st Rank in PG entrance conducted by three universities.

With so much activity, how valuable is the collaboration of your fellow volunteers?
Many volunteers supported the programs I mentioned. Without their involvement it would be impossible to achieve this kind of outcome, especially reaching larger diversified communities.

I would like to thank all volunteers, especially the team members who share the IBM Volunteer Excellence Award with me: Anil S Kumar for strengthening volunteer community, Chandrakala Vootkur on driving alumni program, Ramnarayan for assisting STEM activities, Srinivasa Sripada, Veena Shukla, Shravan Ganja, Amulya Yandamuri for mentor support, Shalini Kapoor for advisory support and Dipika, Priyanka, Vikas, Parimala for communications. Kudos to their commitment towards the community services.

What is most personally satisfying about your work with Nirmaan and its students?
Volunteering is not just a giving process; it is both giving and receiving. I have learned how to face social issues, challenges and how technology can help address some of those. We can aspire to change the world, but my experiences focus me on one or two areas where I can work long-term and see the benefit and impact of my efforts. This approach has given me an opportunity to apply my skills in specific societal problems and work at a grassroot level.

My hope is that the students who participate in these activities achieve their dreams by overcoming the challenges, and that they become change makers in building a good nation.

What do you say to those who would like to volunteer?
Do it. Enjoy in giving back to society and you will get a lot in return; satisfaction, networking, new learning, new skills, new relationships, new stories, different perspectives.

The volunteer team from India is among 15 IBM teams and individuals who are recipients of the fourteenth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. The award is recognition from IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty and is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to employees. It includes an IBM grant for the associated not-for-profit partner or school.

Join the conversation. Tag your tweets with #IBMVolunteers, #IBMVolunteerExcellenceAwards and follow us @IBMVolunteers.

About these stories

Read about IBMers whose volunteer efforts are improving communities around the world.

Activity Kits

IBM’s volunteer Activity Kits include everything you need for a range of activities.