Empathy Builds Friendships and Better Data Systems

Naman Parikh headshotWhen Naman Parikh was in 6th grade, in his hometown of Vadodara in the Gujarat State in

India, he participated in a volunteer project that included outings with children with disabilities. “They were my friends,” he said. “We would take them to things like sporting events and Paralympic games in my hometown.” That experience transformed Parikh’s focus during middle and high school and followed him to Duke, where it inspired a summer 2021 DukeEngage independent project.

During Parikh’s 6th grade project, he noticed that many people treated his friends differently, deepening their sense of social isolation. To promote inclusion and mutual friendship, Parikh collaborated with schoolmates and used his tech-savvy to start a web-based organization called Divyang Dost, which connects middle and high school students with and without disabilities through friendship, music, and technology.

“We would organize drum circle events where we would congregate abled and differently abled students,” Parikh said. “We would have this rhythmic event where we would all play at the beat of the percussion instrument and really bond together over the spirit of the music.”

As Divyang Dost expanded, they began helping participants find assistive technologies. One of the places providing these technologies was the Baroda Rehabilitation Center, led by Dr. Munna Kumar. Kumar became a mentor to Parikh, and Parikh interned at the rehabilitation center during high school, building orthotic equipment for knees, ankles, and backs.

Parikh’s middle and high school experiences deepened the strong commitment to community collaboration that his parents had instilled in him. When applying to colleges, he looked for programs that offered opportunities to join good work around the world, and he was drawn to DukeEngage. After his freshman year at Duke, he was unable to return to his hometown because of the pandemic, but he realized he could continue the collaboration he began in high school through a DukeEngage independent project working virtually with the Baroda Rehabilitation Center.

Based on his proposal for an independent project, Parikh was chosen as the first-ever Chelsea Decaminada Memorial DukeEngage Fellow. The fellowship, which rewards a passion for international service and doing good in the world, was established by the Decaminada family in memory of their daughter Chelsea, who was part of the 2013 DukeEngage-Kolkata (India) program. After graduating from Duke, Chelsea volunteered with the Peace Corps in Tanzania before joining the U.S. Department of Commerce. Chelsea was on assignment in Sri Lanka when she was killed during the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.

In the summer of 2021, Parikh worked with the Baroda Rehabilitation Center to provide cost effective assistive technology to rural communities by designing a data system, researching sources for materials, and working with their CAD systems. While his experiences in high school cultivated empathy through friendship, this summer allowed Parikh to connect empathy to his computer science work.

“Initially I created data sheets and scripts so I could understand them, but I forgot to empathize at that point and think about what the people at the rehabilitation center needed to understand it,” he said. During one of the reflection sessions with DukeEngage, students worked through empathic practices. “[After the reflection session] I used conscious empathy to imagine what they would be feeling. I made a lot of changes to the data sheet, and in the end, we found a sweet spot.”

Parikh continues this fall to study computer science at Duke and to pursue his interest in social entrepreneurship. He hopes those interests combined with his passion for friendships across differences and empathic collaboration will lead to many other sweet connections.

Erin Collazo Miller works on Virtues & Vocations, an initiative to consider how to cultivate character in professional education. She earned a BA in English at Duke University and studied theology at Regent College.

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