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Sita Amba-Rao gives back to inspire and honor

January 22, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. – Though it’s been nearly 20 years since Sita Amba-Rao retired from Indiana University Kokomo, she continues to influence students here by establishing scholarships and service awards. 

A passionate proponent for social justice, she hopes to inspire students to serve their community and society, and to provide equitable access to higher education to students from underserved populations. She wants these students to be valued for their unique contribution to the campus, and for others to learn to appreciate those cultures. 

“My hope is that these students thrive in a supportive university environment,” said Amba-Rao, professor emerita of management. “I want them to gain education and empowerment, achieve success, feel pride in accomplishment, and evolve in life, free to discuss issues and gain true equality.” 

It’s also her fervent desire to honor her late husband, C.L. Amba-Rao, through promoting education. 

“Importance of education was in our families,” she said. “It was the traditional norm in the Brahmanical, or caste, culture in India, and not for wealth, per se. Everyone in both sides of the family had struggled, one way or another, to achieve advanced education. Later, that heritage was to be our privilege to share.” 

Her trademark as a School of Business faculty member was experiential learning, as she urged students to get out of the classroom and use their skills to help local small businesses succeed. 

“I encouraged them to take projects in real-life businesses and organizations, so they could apply their learning from the research they were doing in management,” she said. For example, students developed and completed surveys for the Kokomo Police Department, as it worked towards national accreditation. “The police were very helpful. They needed the work to be done, but they also helped the students learn from the experience.” They would then present their work in student conferences. 

Her belief in learning by doing led her to start her first program, the C.L. and Sita C. Amba-Rao Service Award for undergraduates. When the School of Business added its Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program, she extended the award to make it available also to a graduate student. 

She noted that the recipients don’t necessarily have to be the top students – but they have to be motivated to serve. 

“I’m looking for people who work hard. Effort plus motivation is what will lead to final performance, not just superior intelligence level,” she said. “I was seeking students with strong drive and motivation to do as much as they can in life and their community, starting with their education at IU Kokomo. 

The awards also honor her late husband, who had a distinguished career in the aerospace industry, including at Boeing and Martin Marietta, and his work with the Apollo space program. 

While Sita Amba-Rao taught at IU Kokomo, C.L. Amba-Rao lived in Wichita, Kansas and Baltimore, Maryland, for his jobs, meaning they mostly were together during summers. She retired in 2000 and they moved to Bellingham, Washington, where they enjoyed life together after decades of separation. 

She became a tireless volunteer in her newly-adopted community, and enjoyed taking care of her home and husband. 

“I didn’t want my husband to do any work at home, because we had been separated for a long time,” she said. His health began to deteriorate, and she scaled back her volunteer service to care for him until his death in 2013. 

“It took me a while to do anything after that,” she said. “Fortunately, I found a family to share my home. It’s a mutual help for them and me, and we’ve learned a lot from each other.” 

She and C.L. had previously discussed where they could make a difference, and, in the 1980s, wrote a simple will giving their assets in India to Mother Theresa’s hospital, and those in the United States to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

After he passed away, she revisited their will, and realized she had other priorities.

“I had to imagine and envision his real desires and intentions, and incorporate those into mine,” she said. “That was how I took initiative to change to education, as well as medical advances.” While C.L. Amba-Rao is no longer with her, she still considers what his opinion might be, and she likes to make her decisions in their home, where she feels his presence.

“I always ask myself, would he support what I’m doing?” she said.

Sita Amba-Rao first established an endowment at Purdue University, where both earned their degrees, and then turned her attention to IU Kokomo.

She started increasing the service award amounts from $500 to $1,000 each, and then began examining how the campus had changed since she retired. She learned about the addition of the athletic programs, and the connection between sports and performance in the classroom – and also about the increase in minority enrollment, as well as the Women in Business and Leadership Program.

“I was impressed by that,” she said, and founded the C.L. and Sita C. Amba-Rao Make a Difference Fund, which provides scholarships in business and nursing for students from underserved populations. She plans to fund more of the programs under the Make a Difference theme.

“I’ve learned there is a diffusion of diversity on the IU Kokomo campus. I’m glad to see it’s come a long way because of the various ethnic groups and international groups,” she said. “I’d like to see more of that. I like to see IU Kokomo come into the world arena of the 21st century, with true diversity.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 01/23/2019