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SFU official dedicates her life to community service

Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan has oriented her life and career around volunteering and helping others.
Sobhana Jaya Madhavan, associate vice-president of external relations at SFU, and longtime volunteer.

Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan, a woman in her mid-50s with a career spanning over two decades and a life dedicated to volunteering and community service, reflects on how one moment can turn a life around in unpredictable ways.

For her, that moment came during a school year in India, when she joined a Rotaract club in her hometown of Palakkad, in Kerala, India.

Jaya-Madhavan said it was then that she found her calling in community service.

“I felt very different as a person when I was in those moments — working with somebody, helping, listening, giving people a sort of a lifeline to hang in there until things get better.”

Soon, at the age of 16, she became the youngest president of her hometown's Rotaract Club.

That, she said, was the turning point of her life. Everything that came later in her volunteerism stemmed from this experience.

From immigrant to a national public servant to “strategic matchmaker”

Many in Burnaby know Jaya-Madhavan as the associate vice-president of external relations at Simon Fraser University (SFU), but when she is not engaging with different levels of government, diverse organizations and communities, you can find her volunteering in community service or serving in a “strategic matchmaker” role.

Born in Malaysia and raised in India, Jaya-Madhavan underwent a career trajectory typical of many young graduates — not knowing the direction in which her career was headed and dabbling in multiple prospects.

It was during her stint at the Rotaract club that she was introduced to the field of psychology.

Determined to pursue a psychology education, Jaya-Madhavan began looking for courses in the field before changing her plan and travelling a short distance west of her hometown to pursue philosophy at Calicut University.

“I really enjoyed [philosophy] because it exposed me to different ways of thinking about the same question,” she said. “What is life? Is there a God? All of these questions. But you think about it from many philosophical, religious, ethical perspectives. It exposed me to things I'd never known before. I think my love to see the world, to meet people from different cultures, to understand things from multiple perspectives — I think that's where it crystallized for me.”

Later, in a series of lucky moments, Jaya-Madhavan discovered social work as a career prospect, with help from a woman from Mumbai who was visiting Jaya-Madhavan’s hometown for research purposes.

She travelled to Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai for her master's degree in social work. There, she said, her life once again changed — drastically.

Volunteering in India

Jaya-Madhavan reflects on the mandatory field practice social work during her time at TISS. 

"So Year 1, I was in Film City slum in Mumbai, which is the second largest slum in Mumbai — first one is Dharavi,” she said. "Now, as a privileged middle class girl from Kerala, not only had I not been exposed to these things, I had no clue what a slum looked like or what goes on in there. So it was unexpected for me. That experience was extremely important to me because I think it taught me to discover the oneness of humanity.

“Sitting on the ground, on the earth with women and children in a slum, drinking black tea with no sugar because they can’t afford to buy sugar, and then talking about life love, god, domestic violence — it does something to you, where you realize end of the day, we're all one. We just have different circumstances.

“I think [that experience] changed me fundamentally. It definitely dissolved lot of the arrogance and middle-class chip on my shoulder that I had, coming from a very privileged background.”

Immigrant challenges and love

Jaya-Madhavan’s work and research took her around the world, including Malaysia, where she worked as a Southeast Asia co-ordinator for a group called Third World Network. In 1995, she emigrated to Canada.

However, she was quickly faced with the harsh realities of being an immigrant. “I came here thinking I'm going to have multiple job offers. And I'm going to have a tough time picking which one to say yes to,” she said.

But her hundreds of applications didn’t get a single reply — not even a rejection letter.  After seeking advice and bumping the master's degree from her resume, Jaya-Madhavan remembers her first paid Canadian job — for minimum wage at GM place (Rogers Arena). She then landed a job in social work and moved up, securing a position with the B.C. government serving in front-line child welfare and senior policy and management positions for nearly two decades.

But she emphasizes that her first job in Canada was that of a volunteer.

“The longest love affair in my life is actually with volunteering because it happened at 16. And I continue [doing that] at 55.”

“[Without volunteering], I think my life would not be what it is. And I wouldn't be who I am,” she said.

While travel, her family and education have played big parts, “the most significant impact on my DNA, I would say was volunteering. And I cannot imagine life without volunteering.”

Working towards inclusion

When her mandatory field work time in India was wrapping up, she went to the women in the slum and posed the question: "Where would you all like to go and what would you all like as a small gift?"

Jaya-Madhavan remembers being taken aback by their response. 

“They said they would like to go to the film city and watch a movie shooting. I asked why, and they said, 'We go to work in the morning and we don't come back until night. We never get to go and see the making of a movie. It's movies that help us numb our pain, we want to see how it's done.'”

But it was what the women wanted for a gift that really changed Jaya-Madhavan's whole perspective about inclusion and the vast inequality of privilege and wealth in the society.

“I thought they might ask for a sari or a handbag or something,” she said.

“The women laughed and giggled, and they said, can you get us high quality safety pins that won't poke us? All our saris are torn. And we don't have good safety pins to keep it together. And when we get our periods, we don't have good safety pins to hold cloths together.”

Jaya-Madhavan remembers the moment vividly. “I can remember exactly where I was sitting on the floor: [under] this four-stick plastic cover and a group of women drinking black tea. I remember that conversation. I remember just having this sense of overwhelm, where I just realized how privileged I've been, how much I have, and how little some people have.”

Jaya-Madhavan embarked on a journey of volunteering at organizations that promoted inclusiveness. She serves as chief impact officer for HashHackCode in Chennai, India, an organization aimed at providing technology education for people with different abilities, and she is an advisor to the National Federation of the Blind Maharashtra, in Pune, India, the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival, The Inclusion Project and Global Emerging Leadership Programs (GELP)

She is also president of BC-India Business Network (Canada) and sits on the Burnaby Board of Trade and United Way Cabinet. 

In 2019 and 2022, Jaya-Madhavan was recognized by the global Women Economic Forum (WEF) with a Woman of the Decade and Iconic Women awards.

In 2022, she received the International Inclusion Champion Award from India's National Federation of the Blind Maharashtra.

Giving back to the community the gift of time and life's purpose 

Jaya-Madhavan is now 55, and she hopes that she can travel and volunteer extensively in the next 20 years. 

“Much of my volunteering has been India and Canada, and I want to change that," she said. "So I'm really looking into expanding my global volunteer, network and experiences."

She also encourages people — especially youngsters — to volunteer more, whether it is giving some time or cooking food and dropping it off because a family is struggling, or shopping at a social enterprise.

Sometimes, she says, it can be as little as writing a letter and putting it in the mail because somebody somewhere is struggling. “Just getting the letter, being able to open it hold it read it might lift them up, much more than medication.”

A big motivation for Jaya-Madhavan has always been her two sons, she added, “I want [them] to look back and say, 'Mom you had a positive impact on us.'”