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The Economic Times on Sunday
April 23, 2000
Indian Diaspora

Passion for The Pen
One of Columbia's most popular professors, Sreenath Sreenivasan also runs saja.org
By Arthur J Pais

IF YOU ever think of asking a favor of Sree Sreenivasan think twice.

Last year a journalism professor in New York asked Sree — as Sreenivasan is better known among the faculty and students at Columbia University — to talk to his students about new media. Marymount Manhattan College where Sree was going to speak is not far from Columbia University.

"Can I bring along a colleague," Sree asked very gently. "Both of us can speak to your students."

"Of course, yes," the other professor said. "But please remember we have a small classroom."

The professor chuckles as he recalls the visit. ``I was afraid that Sree might bring the entire Columbia journalism department with him,’’ he says. ``He is generous to a fault.’’ The students had a blast says the Marymount Manhattan College professor. ``I almost decided to give up teaching. He was so inspiring.’’

One of the youngest journalism teachers at a major American university, 29-year-old Sree’s passion for teaching and writing is hardly matched. ``At the J-school, we are more like coaches than teachers,’’ says Sree, who has been teaching at Columbia for seven years. Sree, who earned a BA (honors) in history from St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, has a MS in journalism from Columbia. He began teaching at Columbia’s J-School, considered by many to be the finest journalism school, soon after his graduation. Last year, he was appointed director of a part-time program at the J-School.

``The average age of the students is 28, and we treat them like adults,’’ he says. ``I learn as much from them as they do from me. I love being in a classroom with such enthusiastic, energetic folks.’’

Sree looks several years younger than his age. There are stories of new students walking into his office, and taking a seat while completely ignoring him. When he had asked them if he could help them, they have answered: ``Don’t worry. We are waiting for Professor Sree.’’

Sree’s admirers cannot, just cannot understand how he turns his days into 25 hours, and his weeks into eight days, and his year into 13 months. Consider this: He maintains singlehandedly saja.org, the site of the South Asian Journalists Association that he co-founded six years ago. The site has bios and news about hundreds of South Asian journalists and its stylebook is used by major publications in America. And he manages a new venture: inequality.org, a unique site that rips open the myth of the booming American economy.

His marriage to Rhodes Scholar and champion shooter Roopa Unnikrishnan last year has not slowed him down in the least.

Sree Sreenivasan could take pride in many of his accomplishments including the stories he has written in such major publications as Forbes and The New York Times. But SAJA has a strong sentimental and proud place among his achievements. It was started as an informal association in 1994 with Sree and fellow writer M.K. Srinivasan and publisher Dilip Masand. Soon it had about 18 members including the journalist Om Mallik. Today it has more than 700 journalists and writers as its members who work in far-flung parts of North America. When a new dot.com publication recently placed an ad on SAJA for two assistant editors, 110 people from five countries applied within 10 days.

SAJA’s events in New York typically draw about 60-100 people. SAJA guest speakers have included Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the Taliban ambassador in New York; Daljit Dhaliwal, anchor for ITN World News in England (and widely watched in America); Pete Hamill, the bestselling novelist and legendary editor; filmmaker Deepa Mehta, and writers such as Vikram Chandra, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arundhati Roy and Abraham Verghese.

What personal highlights does SAJA hold? ``Helping get people new jobs,’’ he says. ``Helping find mentors for students. And helping teach American journalists to distinguish between their Hindi and their Hindu through the SAJA Stylebook.’’

Sree also is a role model to a community still sold to the dream of fortunes made from medical and engineering careers. ``At least a couple of times a month, I talk to a parentents at the insistence of their kid, assuring them journalism is a viable profession and that it is okay for their child to go into it,’’ he says.

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