Prema (Charles) Thomas: Service- Focused Technical Education Leader

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Prema Rajavalli Kathleen, who graduated in 1970 from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India, devoted her life to technical education. In her career of forty years, of which thirty-six years were in government service, she worked tirelessly to provide education to rural, marginalized, and downtrodden sections of the society empowering thousands of women to earn their own livelihood.  A woman of high integrity and strong convictions about right and wrong, she says: “It is very easy to get a good performance evaluation from your boss. But getting a good one from God is what I have strived for in my entire life”.

Early Life

Prema was born in Thoothukudi on February 9, 1949. She was the second child in a family of five girls and one boy (who would not be born until Prema was nineteen).  Both her parents were high school teachers in Palayamkottai. Her father, Charles Vettivel, taught drawing at the Cathedral Higher Secondary School. Her mother, Viola, taught the Tamil language at the Sarah Tucker Higher Secondary School. Prema’s grandfather was the manager at the same school much later. Her grandmother was a sewing teacher. They were strong believers in the value of education and were willing to send their daughters away from home to get the best education possible, even in the 1930s, and 1940s. One of Prema’s aunts graduated with a B.A. degree from Women’s Christian College (WCC) in Madras, and another aunt studied medicine at the Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore.  This belief in education was carried down to Prema’s parents.

After attending school at Sarah Tucker, Prema moved to St. Ignatius’ Convent Higher Secondary School and completed the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) exam, and then the Pre-University Course (PUC) at Sarah Tucker College.

Prema was determined from a very young age to study engineering. Being born in a family of five girls, she felt she needed to be the “boy in the family”.  Her parents, who were steeped in Christian missionary culture, were keen on her studying medicine so that she can be of service to the society, but Prema had absolutely no interest in medicine.  She carefully mapped out her path to engineering college by choosing and studying two years of composite mathematics at the age of thirteen which would gain her admission to the mathematics course in PUC, a prerequisite for engineering.  She would devour numerous mathematics question papers, and aimed for a grade of hundred percent in mathematics, which she achieved in her SSLC exam. Her excellent performance in this exam garnered her first rank in her district, and she was awarded the National Merit Scholarship.  This scholarship was important to Prema since she knew studying engineering will be expensive and she didn’t want to impose on her parents too much.

She applied for admission to the state-run engineering colleges and was admitted to Coimbatore Institute of Technology (CIT). Unfortunately, in Coimbatore, there was no accommodation of any kind for girls.  Luckily, she was able to use a mutual transfer process with another student who was admitted to CEG but was from Coimbatore and finally arrived at CEG. Thus started Prema’s undergraduate program in Electronics & Communication Engineering (ECE) in 1965.

At CEG

Prema was a few days late joining her undergraduate program at CEG due to the transfer process above. She was happy to find herself in a class with Rema, and later Nalini.  In her third year, she also had the company of Shantha Unnikrishnan and K.S. Kamala who joined the three-year post-BSc. program.

She needed accommodation in Chennai to attend CEG as there was none for women on the campus. She and her father went to the Madras Government Polytechnic for Women (WPT) where May George (CEG 1947) was the Principal, and May was kind enough to give her accommodation in the WPT hostel. As someone who had cycled and crossed the Adyar River by boat to get to the CEG campus, May was well aware of the challenges of commuting. Prema had the company of her classmate Nalini at the hostel.  In 1966, several junior girls joined them. They commuted to the CEG campus via public transportation.

at WPT hostel-captioned

Prema has fond memories of the hospitality of the other girls in CEG who had homes in Madras. She used to visit the homes of classmates Rema and Shantha and study with them.  Sarojini (CEG 1966) lived quite close to the WPT hostel.  She used to come on her scooter to pick up Prema from the WPT hostel and take her to her house for good conversations and refreshments.

Prema enjoyed her classes at CEG.  She remembers the professors were very kind.  Professor Joseph, from the Mechanical Engineering department, and later Professor Janardhan, Head of the Department, ECE, used to give the girls rides if they found them standing at the public bus stop.

Prema graduated from CEG in 1970.

Career

Soon after graduating, Prema joined Government Polytechnic College for women in Madurai as Senior Instructor under Vice Principal, R. Sulochana (CEG 1962).  Electronics was a newly introduced subject in this polytechnic.  Prema and her colleague, Rajeswari (CEG 1971) bought all the needed equipment and set up the lab.

In 1973, Prema moved to the WPT (now called Dr. Dharmambal Government Polytechnic College for Women), where A. Parvathi (CEG 1960), was the Head of the Department, Electronics and Communication (ECE), and Sundari Vellayan (CEG 1954) was the Principal. In 1974 Prema was promoted to Associate Lecturer, and in 1979 to Lecturer. In 1987, she became the head of the department for ECE.

In 1988, Prema received her master’s degree in Instrument Technology from Madras Institute of Technology, Chromepet.

In 1992, Prema was promoted to Principal of the Bharathiyar Centenary Memorial Government Women’s Polytechnic College (BCMGWP) in Ettayapuram.  This polytechnic was in dire straits and was considered beyond salvaging.  Prema worked tirelessly to shape it up, earning praise from the Tamil Nadu Department of Technical Education, but more importantly, from the students, the parents, and the public. She Implemented a World Bank project at the BCMGWP to improve its infrastructure and other facilities worth two crore rupees. In the Community Polytechnic Scheme (CPS), she trained more than two thousand rural women in and around Ettayapuram.

Mr. Veerarajan, who was on the faculty at BCMGWP had this to say about Prema:

“In addition to the regular curriculum, Prema also promoted activities such as athletics.  She used to bring industry leaders to the polytechnic to give leadership training to the students.  She made industry visits mandatory for students.  Many of her students went on to staff leadership positions in well-known industries. During the admission process, she never dismissed the applications of promising women who did not meet the strict criteria on paper. She always took steps to find out the circumstances of the applicant. She instilled discipline and punctuality in staff and students, and her disciplinary actions were never punitive.”

Prema moved back to Chennai, as Principal of the WPT in 2002. In addition to her teaching and administrative responsibilities, she managed the participation of WPT in the Canada India Institutional Cooperation Project (CIICP).  Under the linkage project, she visited the Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, Canada. As a result of learnings from the project, she designed and introduced a new diploma Course in WPT on environmental engineering and management.

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While Prema is known for her expectations of punctuality and discipline from her staff and students, she was also someone known for her caring ways.  Prema’s former co-worker Girija Subramanian knew her first as a WPT hostel-mate in 1968. She later had a chance to work with her as a colleague, and then report to her when Prema became the HOD and the Principal of WPT. Girija remembers how Prema went so far as to stay with her in the hospital when she was very sick. She also recalled Prema’s assistance and support when she was the state-level coordinator of the CIICP.

In 2004, Prema became the Principal of the Central Polytechnic in Chennai. When the Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme (TEQIP) was launched in 2002 under India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, Prema implemented the program at WPT and later at CPT to support quality in technical education in the rapidly changing technology and economic landscape. In CPT, she won accreditation for five courses, the first government polytechnic to achieve the honor.

Throughout her tenure, Prema designed and updated the diploma course syllabus for the Electronics & Communication program as Convener of its Syllabus Committee. She coordinated the central valuation of diploma exams and set question papers for the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In and around Chennai, more than five hundred women had vocational skills training under the CPS Scheme. Under the centrally sponsored scheme of integrating people with disabilities, more than three hundred women and men had the opportunity to have technical training.

At the national level, in the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), she was one of the twelve members of the National Board of Technician Education, where she formulated the norms for diploma courses, such as student-entry qualifications, infrastructure requirement, and staff qualifications. She was also one of the two members of the prestigious Sectoral Committee, National Board of Accreditation. At the state level, Prema’s professional board memberships included State Board of Technical Education and Training; and State Board of Examination and Studies.

Prema says she is quite happy and satisfied with her career because of two major accomplishments. The first one was to educate the girls who enrolled in the polytechnic diploma courses and send them on their way to further their careers and do well in the workplace.  Many of her students would go on to join Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB), Public Works Department (PWD), Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE), Indian Telephone Industries Ltd. (ITI) in Bangalore, Doordarshan, and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). They also continued their education to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.  The second accomplishment, which is very near and dear to Prema’s heart, is that she was able to provide skills training to poor, and rural, women to stand on their feet.  In small factory towns such as Kovilpatti, child labor was prevalent in match factories.  By educating the women to have skills, the women could provide for their families, while sending the children to schools, and not factories. Prema appreciated the willing support from the matchbox industry for this effort.

Prema retired from government service in 2007.  She moved to Tirunelveli, and in 2009, became an academic adviser at Dr. Joe Suresh Engineering College there. She helped them with setting up their electronics lab, including procurement of lab equipment.  She also advised Dr. (Mrs.) Joe Suresh, the chairman of the college, on academic matters.  In 2013, Prema retired from her forty-year technical career.

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Family Life

After her retirement, Prema was able to spend a few years taking care of her parents. Her mother passed away in 2011, and her father, in 2013.

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Two of Prema’s sisters are retired from teaching careers. One of her sisters retired from the banking industry. The fourth sister is also in the banking industry and will be retiring in the coming year.  Prema’s brother is an engineer who is working in Dubai.

with nephew at KL captioned

Prema married Vayanan Thomas, a mechanical engineer, who received his BSc. from American College in Madurai and then graduated from Thiagarajar College of Engineering with his B.E. degree. He started out as an entrepreneur, manufacturing and supplying original equipment to auto parts companies, such as Ashok Leyland, Audco India, and TVS Motor Company. Later he joined Halda Typewriters as a production engineer and later as the factory manager at AAP Associates in Kottivakkam, Chennai, where he helped the company acquire ISO certification. Since 2003, he is engaged in Christian evangelism and organic farming.

at the beach captioned

Since retiring, Prema spends her time in religious pursuits, reading the Bible, praying, and watching Christian programming on television.  She also participates in her 1970 CEG alumni group online conversations.

Technical Education Focused on Service to the Society

Prema came from a family of educators who appreciated the services Christian missionaries provided to common people.  They wanted Prema to become a doctor in order to be of service to the society, and were not sure how an engineering degree would accomplish this. Well, Prema proved them wrong.  She was instrumental in many women becoming successful in in the industry, sharing the responsibilities of the economy with men. As a technical education leader in government service, she was well positioned to help thousands of women, as well as men. Her passion to be of service to the marginalized sections of society taught them skills to stand on their own legs. In addition, she helped many in her professional circles. Prema says everyone must have skills they can rely on, to stand on their own feet, and every woman must participate in the decision-making process both in the family and in the workplace. Well said!

Acknowledgements

I am thankful to Prema for providing me the details of her career and her personal life and supplying all the photographs in this article.  I owe her gratitude for having been my senior when I joined CEG and providing me guidance on many matters.  She has been reading my articles on CEG alumnae and has always given me very honest feedback on what she thought of my writing.

I very much appreciated the input I received from Prema’s former co-workers, Veerarajan and Girija Subramanian, about Prema’s accomplishments during her career.

Note

This is the eighteenth write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.

You can read the life stories of other CEG alumnae on LinkedIn (use #CEGalumnae in the search for posts/content) or my website Mathisarovar.

My goal is to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our world. Women face a lot of critical moments in their lives that make them want to leave the workforce. I am hoping the stories of the CEG women will inspire them to stay in it.

I will be writing more such posts here and will be collecting them into a book for publishing.

If you have information about CEG alumnae from the 1940s to the 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.

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