Patmanathan Pillai

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2007
This description of Patmanathan Pillai's work was prepared when Patmanathan Pillai was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


South Africa’s struggle to overcome the political, racial, and emotional oppression of apartheid is well-known. Pat Pillai’s Life College is readying students to tackle a new struggle—true liberation from the apathy, low self-esteem, and ongoing psychosocial oppression that is apartheid’s legacy. Developed over eight years, Pat’s model of education cultivates attitudes, behaviors, and competencies based on confidence, communication, project management skills, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

The New Idea

Life College is an educational model focused on emotional intelligence and operates in addition to the mainstream school system to impart life skills. The idea is based on the insight of what makes individuals successful and what youth need to support themselves—no matter what level of education they complete. Developed over eight years, Pat’s model of “psychosocial” education cultivates essential attitudes, behaviors, and competencies over a three-level program. Each level further prepares the student for a high “EQ”—emotional intelligence—based on confidence, communication, project management skills, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

The program is selective, and students are rigorously screened. At each level, they move from theory to practice, culminating in the launch of their own small enterprise. More than just simple business skills, the emotional skills needed to accomplish such a task can be widely applied. High-profile mentors (Life Champions) provide models for success, which most youth sorely lack in their communities. Life College acts as a catalyst to give students the ability to best use their mainstream education and experience success in life, however defined.

Life College can be easily integrated into the existing school structure. Currently in five schools in Gauteng province and launching in Western Cape, each school district becomes a hub, with one satellite school overseeing operations in the district. There are courses starting at age six and running through the university level, but each is packaged to be implemented at a range of institutions.

The Problem

While the post-Apartheid education system has made strides in terms of inclusion and participation, it still fails to produce adequate numbers of well-rounded, productive citizens. Non-academic skills are taught in some schools, preparing students to the extent that if they do drop out early they are still employable. However none of the skills are life skills—emotional, ethical, or behavioral—that would give youth a sense of who they are and how to understand and live within their environment and influences. It is these types of skills youth need most to better negotiate their way in a world that is radically different from that of their parents. More than a century of oppression left a deficit of emotional capacity and strength that has yet to be restored.

Although there are some personal development classes in schools, most focused on health, students are unprepared to deal with the violence, harassment, destructive behavior, and other pressures of their school or home environments. So while students may leave the system with knowledge and one or two practical skills, they are ill equipped in South Africa’s young democracy.

Another problem is that today’s youth have so few positive role models. In a still divided and stratified society, youth don’t often get the opportunity to learn from real successful experiences. The mainstream education system does not encourage the role of mentors who can supplement academic study with valuable life lessons. In addition to the absence of valuable experiential knowledge, youth enter the “real world” with few networks and connections to get started.

In the midst of these hindrances, there are success stories that come out of the education system. However, there is no dedication to analyzing why some students succeed—what the critical variables, factors, and influences—that create socially intelligent and successful leaders and citizens. As a result, students fend for themselves with mixed results in an untested system.

The Strategy

After a career in education, Pat identified the critical role emotional intelligence and capacity played in students’ success. Distilling the principles of how to impart these skills, he founded Life College. Life College is structured in three levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary) designed to provide the building blocks and life skills to prepare learners for challenges outside the academic realm that might hamper their success.

Life College is implemented through a series of after-school programs using the existing resources of public schools. The approach used to launch in a new district is first to conduct due diligence in the district to ensure that there is an environment amenable to Life College, including teachers who can champion the program. Once Pat gains a perspective on the district’s situation, he identifies a satellite school for initial roll-out. This school will become the hub and lead all other schools in the district.

Learners in the program are rigorously selected. Students and student participation is the backbone of the program, so program leadership looks for potential to grow, discipline, and commitment. Teachers from each school participate in selection. Students selected for Life College pay R2.50 (US$.25) to ensure that the program retains value. Pat finds that the nominal fee inspires commitment and gets students ready for the real world—“where nothing is free.”

Pat also places teachers in each school who are employed full-time by Life College. Like the students, teachers are continually nurtured and trained to be successful. As with learners and also Life College staff, commitment and passion are the strictest criteria. Staff members are selected through a stringent five-part process to ensure that they have internalized the spirit of the program, its principles and priorities.

The three levels to the life program correspond to the primary, secondary, and tertiary educational institutions. Each level builds on the former, growing with the student and moving gradually from theory to application as the learning experiences become more complex. Level One is largely class work which covers theoretical aspects of the program and an introduction to the skills to come. At Level Two the after school programs continue, and in addition students select their Life Champion mentors among Pat’s network of high profile leaders in various fields. Local and sometimes international role models, Life Champions are contracted to contribute time in person and phone/email, despite their busy schedules. These relationships continue through the rest of the program. Level Three adds the component of the entrepreneurial project, which places students in organizations or businesses where they develop a for-profit enterprise. Students are provided with funds and are expected to implement their projects as a viable business. Their budgets include payments to Life College for use of any classrooms or facilities, and profits over R2,000 (US$200) are shared between the individual/team and Life College. A percentage of the profits to Life College feed a fund which supports the launch of the next group of student enterprises.

Although Pat realizes not every student is destined to be a business entrepreneur, the experience is still valuable not only for emotional intelligence but also teamwork, leadership, and other widely applicable skills. Pat also encourages the development of intrapreneurship skills—creativity, ingenuity, and problem-solving within existing organizations and groups. Throughout the program students are evaluated from all perspectives and graduate only when all requirements are met, regardless of their school level.

On the level of governance and organizational structure, Life College is extremely transparent. Pat has recruited a highly engaged Board which is involved in the direction and support of Life College. Learning from past mistakes, Pat takes a careful and studied approach to expansion, planning for ten school sites operational by 2010. Once Life College reaches this level Pat believes subsequent expansion will happen quickly. While Life College relies on core methodology shared among all programs, it is not a one-size-fits-all—as the communities it serves become more diverse, the program will adapt. This style of learning, focused on emotional intelligence, must be hyper-aware of the environment and the historical context of each group of students.

Between the nominal fees, the share of profits from student enterprises, and fees for enterprises’ use of Life College resources, Pat is on track to be 30 percent self-sustaining by 2010 and 70 percent thereafter. For Pat, and Life College, emotional intelligence and psychosocial education are not abstract, unsubstantial concepts, but tangible, teachable products with tremendous value for students and society.

The Person

Pat grew up on the Cape Flats, an area which inherited many socioeconomic and cultural challenges from the Apartheid era. Nevertheless, community life was rich, and Pat continues to draw from his experiences there. Throughout his life Pat has managed to step outside himself and became an analyst—seeking to understand patterns of behavior and events, generating many of the questions whose answers would lead to the founding of Life College.

As a young education student, he chose to study drama to help with a stutter and fear of public speaking. He saw the potential to use drama as a learning vehicle and founded a program that encouraged solo shows and group dramatic performances for community benefits and education. The program was designed with a particular focus on under-resourced communities and youth, who gained their first empowering experience through an art form. When he became a teacher, he realized the public school system was doing little to nurture in youth a true readiness for life. Apartheid had weakened society, and there was little foundation upon which youth could rebuild. At age twenty-two, he decided to create a complimentary intervention to fill those gaps.

His first attempt at a model similar to Life College failed. After a few years and a few introspective steps back, Pat tried a second time in 1997 with a revised strategy and methodology for Life College. Pat used the income from the sale of his drama company to launch with just sixteen students. Pat’s career in the entertainment industry gave him strong networks to recruit initial Board members and Life Champions which improved the quality of the program over the previous iteration. Pat was determined to be methodical in his implementation, and to not succumb to the same demons he was teaching students to fight.

The full-time volunteer CEO of Life College, Pat supports himself with a job as a night anchor on a popular Johannesburg television station.