Growing up in India, the daughter of parents with little formal education, Sunita Mittal Agarwal, A.L.M. ’13, thought a college education was out of reach.
Today, this first-generation college student holds two master’s degrees and has been a tireless advocate on behalf of persons with disabilities in her native India. In recognition of this service, she was awarded the 2021 Dean Michael Shinagel Award for Service to Others by the Harvard Extension Alumni Association.
Agarwal credits Harvard Extension School with giving her the courage to get involved and give back to the community.
“My experiences at Harvard Extension changed my life,” Agarwal says. “Harvard encouraged me to think bigger and to be bold. It empowered me and gave me the confidence to lead change.”
Her interest in accessibility started when she broke her leg on a return trip from Cambridge to India. She realized just how difficult it was to go anywhere — even inside her own house — with limited mobility.
After graduating from Harvard, Agarwal spearheaded the creation of EasenAccess, part of a long-term initiative by the Ministry of Social Justice’s Accessible India Campaign.
A free app for Android, EasenAccess empowers people with physical disabilities by providing information about accessibility in public spaces throughout India. Launched in 2017, EasenAccess gives users details about the accessibility of more than 1,500 sites based on 12 parameters, such as dedicated parking, ramps and handrails, width of doors and corridors, and elevators.
In parallel with her work on EasenAccess, Agarwal lobbied for the passage of accessibility legislation, resulting in the passage of The Rights of Persons with Disability Act (RPWD Act 2016) in December 2016.
Progress toward greater accessibility in India continues to be slow, but attitudes are changing.
“In 2014, apps were fairly new, and EasenAccess didn’t take off as well as I would have liked.” Agarwal says. “We did a lot of direct marketing, but it wasn’t always well received. But the concepts have trickled down and I do see change.”
Today, Agarwal’s goal is to make EasenAccess fully interactive, allowing users to input accessibility information about spaces they visit. She also hopes to launch an iPhone version soon.
Through her work with the HEAA and the Harvard Club of India, Agarwal has also begun to advocate on behalf of first-generation students like herself. Most recently, she helped 11 students win Harvard scholarships for online courses through edX. She hopes to increase fundraising for additional scholarships for underprivileged students.
“It makes an immense difference in the lives of these students — to see their joy when they learn that they can take a course at Harvard,” Agarwal says. “I hope I can continue to give back to both Harvard and to India by helping to ensure that persons with disabilities, the elderly, and underprivileged children feel included and know that they are valued.”
To read more about Argawal’s story, visit the Harvard Extension website.
The HEAA also recognized four alumni with Emerging Leader Awards and Military-Veteran Distinguished Service Awards:
Emerging Leader Award recipient Kelly Burton, A.L.M. ’19, studied sustainability to bolster her decade of experience in ethical fashion and clean beauty. Since graduating, she’s been named Chief Sustainability Officer at Material Exchange.