Syracuse University Magazine


Ujwala Samant met her husband, Pascal Herve G’89, at SU.

Ujwala Samant G’90, G’95

Nourishing Change

On the morning of her first day of work at the Food Bank of South Jersey in February 2009, Ujwala Samant’s job title was “grant writer.” But by the time she went home to her husband and son that evening, she was the organization’s new director of programs and services—a department that didn’t yet exist. “In the afternoon the CEO asked me to create the department, and I told her I knew nothing about food banking,” says Samant, who earned a master’s degree in counselor education from the School of Education and a doctoral degree in social science from the Maxwell School. “She said, ‘I looked at your resume. You’ll do it.’”

And so she did. Five years later, Samant heads up what she calls “a really good set of programs and teams,” including the agency’s core Feed More program, which last year solicited 10 million pounds of surplus food for distribution to some 240 programs servicing more than 173,000 people in New Jersey communities. Other initiatives developed under her leadership include nutrition education activities, healthy cooking classes for families, and the establishment of Kids Café sites to alleviate childhood hunger. “The part I truly enjoy is when our programs create realistic and sustainable change,” says Samant, who met her husband, Pascal Herve G’89, at SU (pictured). “When I hear children wanting to eat kale chips, or teenagers saying they are drinking water instead of juice one year after they have taken a small six-week class, I think, ‘Yeah, we’re reaching someone somewhere.’ When I see the change, when I see people using what they’ve learned to better their lives, that’s the biggest victory. That’s where my work has meaning.”

Improving lives through education was also central to Samant’s role as executive director of Learning for Life, a London-based charity that serves impoverished communities in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, focusing on schooling and teacher training for girls and women. “There, women and girls are hungry for change,” says Samant, who was born in Mumbai, India, and first came to the United States to pursue graduate studies. “In the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, where women’s literacy is in some places zero, we still managed to erect 80 schools, all with health units, and trained more than 100 women as teachers and health workers and to manage the schools with village education committees, parent-teacher associations, and grassroots networking.”

She joined Learning for Life in 2003, helping transform it from a struggling entity to a thriving one. Under her direction, the organization also supplied resources to primary schools in the United Kingdom to raise awareness about and challenge racial and ethnic stereotypes. “It was an intense time,” says Samant, who was recognized with Britain’s Asian Woman of Achievement Award for social and humanitarian work in 2007. “Now my attitude to everything is, ‘It can’t be worse than Afghanistan.’ If I can make a change there, I can work anywhere.”

In addition to her professional achievements, Samant has maintained a close connection with SU. While at Learning for Life, for example, she was active in SU London’s internship program, providing students with hands-on experience at the agency—something she and her colleagues enjoyed. She attributes her success and sense of fulfillment to the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of her education at the Maxwell School. “The only reason I can easily change jobs and specializations is because I have this interdisciplinary outlook on the world that Syracuse gave me,” she says. “You don’t realize what a gift it is until after you leave. It is rare to find.”  —Amy Speach