Alumni Profile: Nina Patel
Nina Patel, a 2010 graduate of the MSE program, has many passions—space exploration, art, technology, social enterprise—and she’s not afraid to boldly go where her passion takes her.
While growing up in Ahmedabad, India, Nina saw the “vast divide between rich and poor in every facet of life.” From the milk deliveryman to the vegetable vendor to the alley bike repair shop to the local repairman mending the shoes of pedestrians, her day was full of people working hard to survive while maintaining compassion for the community they lived in. “I always wished that they would progress upward in society despite the competition and discrimination they faced. I realized that these people were not looking for sympathy but rather an opportunity to capitalize on their entrepreneurial skills.”
During her undergraduate years at Penn State, Nina studied abroad at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. During her travels throughout Southeast Asia, she saw “reflections of my childhood—small local struggling businesses, child labor, people’s motivation to succeed if given the opportunity. People lived in poor conditions but with a sense of community, helping each other despite discrimination from the rest of society for being poor.”
Though compelled by the need to do something in the area of international development, she first needed to follow her childhood dream “to work at NASA and help uncover the secrets of the universe, and maybe travel to outer space one day.” An opportunity to pursue that dream came when she was awarded an internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. This eventually led to a full time Computer Scientist position at NASA that allowed her to “work with the technologies of the future.” And she loved it.
Before long, Nina was introduced to an organization that would ultimately move her away from her dream job. In 2006, she saw an interview with Kiva founder Mohammad Yunnus that spurred her desire to “give back to society”.. “I recognized the power of microfinance, a pure human connection and endless, selfless cycle of giving, receiving, and growing using web 2.0 technology. I wanted to be part of it.” She started by becoming a Kiva Lender and then quickly became a volunteer. A year later, she learned of the Kiva Fellowship program. The program remained in the back of her mind until the timing was more appropriate. She thought, “Maybe someday I can help this great cause. Even then, their mission was close to my heart.”
Years later, Nina re-assessed her life. She loved NASA but didn’t feel that she was meeting her full potential. She wasn’t as fulfilled as before. After considerable self-reflection, and with encouragement from her family, Nina decided to leave NASA to explore her passion for social justice. She applied for, and was awarded, a Kiva Fellowship. After an extensive interview process, she was sent to Kenya where she worked “with the M-PESA technology (Kenya’s largest peer-to-peer mobile money) team to establish strategies, specifications, and platform integration to automate Kiva Zip’s loan repayments and disbursement operations.”
Now that the fellowship has concluded, Nina’s plan is to explore different passions. “I love art and technology, and how the combination of the two can result in beautiful products. I’m going to give that a try (at the Deloitte Digital Studio in London). And then who knows. Perhaps I can combine my passion for art, technology, and social enterprise and create my own non-profit start-up. For now though, I’m going to enjoy what the world offers me.”
Published in the Spring 2014 issue of Software Engineering Alumni Magazine