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Yegan Pillay: Using the lessons from apartheid

By Brittany Yingling

Yagambaram PillayOhio University instructor Yegan Pillay often asks his students to complete the sentence, "I am…" Most respond with personality traits; Pillay responds with the color of his skin. "On a day-to-day basis, I have to constantly think of myself as a person of color," he says. A native of South Africa, he is used to being judged by his caramel-colored complexion and jet-black hair.

Pillay grew up during apartheid, an official policy of racial segregation that discriminated against people of color (including African, Indian and others) in political, economic, social and legal situations. From 1948, when the first laws were enacted, to 1994, when the new government rescinded them, race determined who voted, where they lived, whom they married and which jobs they could occupy.

The South African government created homelands that stripped citizens of voting rights and declared national states of emergency, during which people of color were often tortured and even killed. Today South Africa is still struggling to rebuild after apartheid divided its citizens for more than 50 years.

Pillay's experiences during apartheid prompted him to study psychology and sociology. "I wanted to understand better the impact that pervasive social injustice has on the psyche," he says.

After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology and an honors degree in psychology, Pillay moved to the United States with the aid of a Bishop Tutu academic scholarship that covered the costs of further education. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees at Ohio University. When he returned home in 1998, cutbacks in health care, especially in mental health care, "provided little opportunity for psychologists to be gainfully employed and reasonably rewarded for their work," he says. He returned to the United States, where he already had been offered a job as the clinic director of a local domestic violence shelter.

Even though he's far removed from South Africa, the distance doesn't interfere with his involvement in his homeland. Pillay, who is now an assistant director in the Office for Institutional Equity at Ohio University, strives to make a difference in the lives of those who are oppressed and victimized.

In 1998, he completed racial identity research on African-American students. He found that psychological distress is significantly increased by a negative self-image, which supported Pillay's hypothesis and helped him explain some of the issues afflicting South Africans.

During the winter recess of 2003, he returned to his homeland to learn more. With a professor and several student teachers from Bowling Green State University, he traveled to South Africa to research conditions inside public schools. Through focus groups and interviews with about 20 teachers, serious areas of need began to surface.

Teachers work in the most primitive of classrooms, without books, chalkboards – even desks. Many reported feeling emotionally drained after spending hours listening to students whose home lives are riddled with violence, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS-related deaths. Even parents, Pillay says, "have such a high regard for teachers that they go to them for moral support." As a result, teachers are overwhelmed – and are losing motivation in the process.

Pillay and his colleagues plan to develop workshops to provide basic micro-counseling skills to South African teachers. In addition, the group is helping to strengthen Project Citizen, which encourages students to take pride in their country and to contribute to the rebuilding process.

With this research, Pillay is able to keep one foot in South Africa and another foot in Athens. "I move between the different worlds of intellectual exercises and pragmatic application," he says. As an assistant director of Institutional Equity, one of his primary roles is to promote an adherence to institutional policy among students, faculty and staff as it relates to race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, ability, age or veteran status.

Last spring, Pillay taught "Introduction to Diversity," a course he developed to fill what he viewed as a gap in students' multicultural education. The successful class now will be offered in three sections this spring. He hopes the course will become an integral component of the undergraduate education curriculum.

Even though he is active in the Athens community, he hasn't put research on the back burner. He plans to return to South Africa by the end of 2004 – depending on whether he secures funding – and will begin setting up micro-counseling workshops for teachers. He's been a United States resident for about 10 years now and voted for the first time in Columbus, Ohio, for a change in the South African government. His roots are in South Africa – and that is something he will never forget.


Brittany Yingling is an intern with the Office of Research Communications.

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