Love of math and teaching equal life-changing experience
Feb. 17, 2011
by Susan Gawlowicz
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The e-mail was brief. “Yes you can come. –Raju”
James “Jamie” Wratten Jr.’s passport was ready. He needed only a visa and a plane ticket to India. Wratten—now a fourth-year mathematics student in the College of Science—received the e-mail in early June at home on his family’s farm in Waterville, N.Y., following his second year at RIT.
Wratten spent the previous summer at Texas A&M University as part of the national Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. An impulse to volunteer and teach children mathematics led him in a different direction.
Unable to find what he was looking for in the United States, Wratten searched online for opportunities abroad. He contacted orphanages in India and in countries in Africa and the Middle East, offering to volunteer for the summer in exchange for food and lodging. His singular offer, perhaps discounted as shady, was mostly ignored. Two weeks into summer break, the e-mail arrived from Raju, the head of an orphanage of 60 children in Karnataka, India.
“Initially, I told my parents I was going to go somewhere and they said OK, because they didn’t think I was going to do it,” he said. “Then they said, ‘You can’t go unless we can ask Raju six questions,’ as if they were playing some game.” They asked about the neighborhood and sought reassurance that their only son would be safe.
The next thing Wratten knew he was in the hectic Mumbai airport. He arrived in Bangalore, where Raju awaited his arrival. “He was quite surprised I was there, that I actually showed up.”
Wratten was met with the same response when he returned to India the following summer to work in an orphanage in Orssa. Both small towns were unaccustomed to foreign visitors, or at least ones like Wratten, a 6-foot-4 American who came ready to assimilate. They were surprised that someone from the United States would want to live like them, he said. “Raju didn’t believe it until after I had left.”
Both Raju and Samuel, the orphanage director Wratten met the following year, struggled to grasp his motivation—his agenda or mission; he appeared to have none. “I was going to go whether the orphanage was Christian, Hindu or Muslim—it was completely irrelevant to me.”
One memory stands out for Wratten from the first morning at Raju’s orphanage.
“I woke up about 5:30 a.m. hearing the kids singing. The kids had it bad, but they were so happy to have anything. One kid and his sister were found on the street picking up garbage to trade in for food. There was another kid whose father was a mass murderer. A couple of the girls at the orphanage were from the so-called ‘untouchables.’
“No matter where they were from or what they had been through they had a true zeal for life,” he adds. “The courage they showed was truly unbelievable, each and every one of them is a true hero to me.”
“I told them I just wanted to come and teach, and they couldn’t believe it,” Wratten says. “They never would believe it, I think, because they would have no idea. Many students in India want to come to America. But for someone to come to India doesn’t seem to make any sense. Whatever I gave them, they gave me so much more.”
The indelible experience of India has shaped Wratten’s world view and his desire to make a difference. He is currently waiting to hear from graduate schools while looking for opportunities that align his interests in physics and math with helping people.