Bringing the best of two cultures to her family, work and community
On February 28, 1948 in the town of Udipi in southern India, Sarojini was born.
She grew up in Bangalore, India, a city regarded as India's version of Silicon Valley. Bangalore has been deemed a Sister City to Cleveland, by Sister Cities International.
Sarojini "Roji" had 2 younger siblings, both of whom are now deceased. At the age of 21, she came to the United States to enter into an arranged marriage with Sridhar, a man from her same community in India.
Roji was educated by Catholic nuns in a convent school in India. "The nuns were Irish Catholic and I am Hindu. But they did not force their religion on me and I received an excellent education."
One of the reasons for coming to Cleveland was that her husband was doing post-doctoral work at Case Western Reserve.
Roji and Sridhar
When she first came to Cleveland, she lived in a tiny two bedroom apartment in the Murray Hill area. She was afraid to answer the phone because she did not think she would understand the caller. "When I first came to this country I could speak English, and yet I had a very hard time understanding the American accent."
Soon after arriving, she had her first child, her daughter, Anjali. She had always wanted to work at home in India, but was told she should get married instead, so that is what she did. Once here, she saw things could be very different.
She went to Kent State and received her Associate's Degree. She was interested in becoming an educator of the hearing impaired, but never got the opportunity to teach in that field. She then went to Case Western Reserve where she earned a Masters in Education of Children with Learning Disabilities.
Right around this time her second child her son Nikhil was born.
Roji with son Nikhil and daughter-in-law Amy
Roji taught in the Cleveland and Maple Heights School Districts before being laid off. She heard of a program at Progressive Insurance Company in which they would train computer programmers. This was not her area, but she took the training to see how she would do.
Obviously, she did well. She has been a Systems Analyst in the IT Department of Progressive for 22 years! "It is a very good company to work for and I am so happy that I took the training they offered."
Sarojini 'Roji' Rao at work
Once Roji came to Cleveland, she knew she was going to stay here. "I love Cleveland, I consider it my home. I was determined to like the weather." So she took up cross country skiing.
She returns to India once a year to see her father.
Sarojini 'Roji' Rao and her father
Roji has a very serious career that requires a lot of attention to detail. So when she comes home at night she does not want to "have to think." She and Sridhar have a little fourteen pound mixed breed dog named Kali, who she refers to as an "APL special." "Kali is almost 14 years old and is like our grandchild."
Roji with her dog Kali
Kali helps her relax, as do her books and television.
"I like light reading in the evening and mainly sitcoms on television. And I do not apologize for it. So many people say they only read non-fiction or never watch television. I love to laugh and I look forward to relaxing at the end of a day." She also knits, but now only a few minutes each day. "Knitting is also a stress-reliever."
Sarojini 'Roji' Rao volunteering at the 2006 Mayor Frank G. Jackson's Holiday Basket Giveaway
In the summer, you will find her working in her garden and then cooking up delightful dishes. "I love to cook, it is my passion. And not just Indian food, I cook everything."
She says they have "Pig Out Days" at Progressive and everyone brings food to share. She always tries to bring something different, like Chinese, Greek, Mediterranean or anything at all.
Roji is very active in an international club for women, The Zonta Club. She is the President of the Cleveland Chapter. The Club is a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the status of women through the help, mentoring and counseling of professional women.
Roji is enthusiastic about the Zonta Club and its future and hopes her presidency is a success. She believes strongly in its cause and loves working with the other women.
Sarojini Rao takes the gavel as president of
the Zonta Club in Cleveland
"It may sound trite, but it is true. There is nothing a young lady cannot do in today's world if she puts her mind to it. I am proof of that. I came from a very traditional Indian background and look at me now."
There are some basic differences between the Indian and American cultures. Some of course are obvious. One that is too clear to Roji is the treatment of elders and authority figures. "I am still surprised, even after 38 years, to see the disrespect some young people have toward their elders and even adults show such disrespect for authorities."
Roji and her father
She says much of India is still very traditional, but you see more and more girls in the bigger cities wearing pants and becoming more independent. "Of course they are still much more covered up then they are in this country. They never show their legs, even in the big cities."
Sarojini Rao honoring a Zonta Member
at the Zonta Club Holiday Party
Roji struggles with the thought of her children moving away. Her son is married; her daughter a teacher. "I left my home 12,000 miles away. I can't tell my children they must stay home. We are a very close family."
Sarojini 'Roji' Rao and her family
In general, Roji is a very happy person. It is rare that she is sad or depressed. "I see humor in a lot of different things and I cannot control myself. I just burst out laughing."
Roji and Sridhar at Glacier National Park
"Maybe after I retire I will do some traveling. I have not done much. And more hiking - I love to hike."
As mentioned, there are tremendous differences between the Indian and American culture and lifestyle. Roji entered into an arranged marriage and moved to the other end of the world to do so. She made it work for her and has a wonderful loving husband and two beautiful children as a result.
She wanted to have a career in India but was told to get married instead. She did and she could not be happier now.
Roji is a wonderful example to us all. Not of how different the cultures are, but rather how much alike we all are. Her commitment to family, observance of her faith, and kind heart transcends cultural or geographic boundaries.
Her desire to empower women and young girls and her willingness to mentor and teach them is a universal goal. Her smile is contagious. When Roji smiles, the world smiles with her. And Roji gives us all something to smile about.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson (5/07)
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