CMU Indian Graduate Students Help Raise Over $430K for COVID Relief in India
By Rachel Latsko
Striking a balance between grief and inspiration, a group of Indian graduate students at Carnegie Mellon has spearheaded a fundraising effort to help India fight the second deadly wave of COVID-19. With assistance from more than 35 student organizations across 30 U.S. universities, the collective has raised more than $430,000 for vital medical supplies and humanitarian resources.
Recipe for Relief
While preparing for an April 24 virtual event for the Indian Graduate Student Association (IGSA), IGSA President Priyank Lathwal, a Ph.D. student in Engineering and Public Policy, was distressed about a call he received from his mother in India about family friends contracting COVID-19 and not being able to get access to medical help.
Lathwal, along with IGSA Vice President Roshan Sharma and fellow IGSA members were alarmed and worried about the well-being of their parents, friends and extended family members amid the surge of COVID-19 cases in India.
“There is the feeling of helplessness from being in a different continent than your family and dear ones and not being able to directly impact what they can do,” said Sharma, a doctoral student in CMU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Personal motivation combined with their CMU training led Lathwal and Sharma to quickly transition into action. In collaboration with student organizations at the University of Pittsburgh and Cornell University, they launched a GoFundMe fundraiser within a few hours to raise $100,000.
“We started this effort with a feeling, not a plan. But we are CMU students and have been trained to think quickly on our feet to come up with creative solutions to address societal problems,” Lathwal said.
Shyamli Badgaiyan, an MBA student from Harvard University, connected with Lathwal the next day. She was trying to launch a similar fundraising effort. The duo decided to join forces in co-leading a joint fundraiser across U.S. universities, which has received national news coverage.
The money raised will support non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and organizations working on the ground to serve those most in need by providing essential medical supplies, such as oxygen and hospital beds, transportation, food security and shelter. The initial “Help India Breathe” GoFundMe fundraiser has surpassed its initial goal by raising over $185,000, which will now migrate to the larger GiveIndia effort. The first set of disbursements of roughly $245,000 is already underway.
“From the moment we started the fundraiser we weren’t certain about where this would go,” Sharma said. “That first response from the CMU community really powered our efforts. It made us realize that a lot of people want this, a lot of people are hurting, and a lot of people feel the same as us. I think that was the recipe for making this fundraiser as successful as it was.”
The Tartan Community Steps Up
With no formal advertising plan, Lathwal and Sharma spent the first 48-72 hours emailing different schools and tapping into their social networks to see if people would spread the word. Chirag Nagpal, a doctoral student in the Language Technologies Institute, helped spread awareness about the issue in the CMU community through a petition to President Farnam Jahanian. Faculty from within and outside CMU answered the call.
Their first contact was CMU engineering professor M. Granger Morgan, who called Lathwal to express condolences over the loss of an extended family member.
“This effort becomes very personal when you experience loss,” said Lathwal, who recalls texting Sharma the first evening of the fundraiser to ask for a couple of hours to regroup.
More faculty stepped up, like Language Technologies Institute Professor Bhiksha Raj, who not only circulated the cause among faculty but created his own resources page and help line for CMU students whose parents or relatives may be in danger from the COVID-19 crisis.
“ ... enough can’t be said about how supportive members of the Tartan community have been of our efforts.” – Priyank Lathwal and Roshan Sharma
Lathwal said he was excited and grateful when CMU President Farnam Jahanian wrote to the university community to express sympathy and compassion on behalf of CMU, and to the IGSA to offer his support of the relief efforts. Lathwal also spoke with Gina Casalegno, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students.
“All the people we’ve spoken to at CMU have been so supportive, including the Office of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Civic Engagement (SLICE), the Undergraduate and Graduate Student Senates, Student Body President Govind Menon and Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) President Josh Gyory,” Lathwal and Sharma said. “Of course, there is inspiration coming from the nature of the crisis, but enough can’t be said about how supportive members of the Tartan community have been of our efforts. The sense of community from CMU inspires you to do more than what you think you can. Our hearts are truly in the work.”
Making a Difference
Lathwal and Sharma thanked their advisors Professor Granger Morgan (Engineering and Public Policy), Professor Parth Vaishnav (Engineering and Public Policy and University of Michigan), Professor Ian Lane (Electrical and Computer Engineering), and Professor Florian Metze (Language Technologies Institute), who have been particularly understanding while they balance their research and humanitarian efforts.
Keen on research and wanting to make a difference in the world, Sharma started his Ph.D. studies in 2019 developing technologies in speech recognition. He joined IGSA seeking a connection, but soon felt called to a leadership role, where he could make students feel more comfortable about themselves and their culture as they take on the academic rigors of CMU.
"My family has been incredibly instrumental in instilling a strong sense of responsibility, civic duty, and charity in me, and their constant faith and support has helped me throughout," Sharma said.
New to fundraising, Sharma was inspired by Lathwal’s leadership and motivation, which Lathwal credits to the three generations in his family who served in India’s armed forces.
“Civic duty and the sense of wanting to make a difference is very strong in my being,” Lathwal said.
Before attending CMU, Lathwal studied at the National Institute of Technology in India. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he worked to help found a liberal arts university that in fewer than 10 years has produced two Rhodes Scholars. Lathwal went on to receive a joint master’s degree from Columbia University’s engineering and business school before he made his way to CMU’s Engineering and Public Policy Department, where he studies air pollution and climate change impacts in India and the U.S.
“You can do anything you put your mind to, and this is just an amazing example of humanity that we’ve seen.” — Roshan Sharma
After completing his Ph.D. this August, Lathwal will commence a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School working with John Holdren, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology issues.
The Employee Assistance Program and Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) can help members of the CMU community who may be grieving or who just need to talk about the impact of COVID-19. CaPS offers a standing Immigrant Connection Hour.
“I sat in on one of the CaPS’ Immigrant Hour sessions, and it was saddening to hear about the stories of people who are experiencing the crisis from here and from India,” Sharma said. “CaPS did offer a considerable amount of support to such people.”
The fundraising effort is another example of CMU’s supportive community.
“This whole experience has led me to the realization that we’re all in this together — what’s happening with the COVID crisis in India could morph into something in the U.S. and other countries any day — we can make this work and we can do something. We can transform all that helplessness inside into productivity, to help save lives,” Lathwal said. “It has just been an amazing realization for me. That’s as good as it gets.”
Lathwal and Sharma ask the Tartan community to remain all in when it comes to COVID mitigation efforts.
“Doing simple things, like putting on a mask, social distancing and getting vaccinated may mean saving lives. You can do anything you put your mind to, and this is just an amazing example of humanity that we’ve seen,” Sharma said.
“For all those people who say humanity is lost, this is our example to the world that it most certainly is not.”
Members of the CMU community who would like to contribute to the COVID-19 relief efforts can go to the GiveIndia website at https://covid.giveindia.org/southasianstudents/.
To contact the Indian Graduate Student Association, send email to email@example.com.