5 questions with… music education nonprofit founder, senior Suneil Kamath

Suneil KamathWhen Suneil Kamath picked up violin as a child, he immediately felt a passion and appreciation for music—one that he’s carried with him ever since.

But when he traveled to India in high school to visit family, Kamath was shocked to realize his cousins didn’t have the extracurricular opportunities, such as music and athletics, that had shaped him over the years.

Kamath soon realized the problem wasn’t unique to India: Many schools in the United States lack music and sports programs, and countless schools that do have them operate under a “pay-to-play” model, which can create a socioeconomic barrier, the senior marketing and finance student explained.

“If you look at the statistics, if you grow up in a different ZIP code, your life trajectory could be completely different than another student’s,” Kamath said.

In an effort to give students access to music, Kamath founded the nonprofit organization Music of the Heart in 2010. Through the organization, Kamath hoped to provide students, especially inner-city youth, with various music programs to fill in the gaps in their education.

The organization first started by hosting musical concerts for youth in hospitals, but five years later, Music of the Heart continues to grow, even though Kamath’s been operating the Columbus-based organization from Cleveland while a full-time student. As a whole, more than 600 youth have participated in programs hosted by Music of the Heart.

His most recent project through Music of the Heart is Hip-Hop Education And Learning (HEAL), which gives at-risk students access to music and education programs. HEAL connects middle-school students with mentors from Columbus universities who experienced similar situations when they were younger.

Through partnerships with local educational institutions and other organizations, including the Columbus City School District, Boys and Girls Club, music studios, Ohio State University and Otterbein University, Kamath identifies students who are at risk for dropping out, creates curriculum and finds volunteer mentors. The program launched in May 2014, and has operated mostly as a summer program since.

Kamath chose to focus this organization around hip-hop after learning about its emergence in the Bronx as a way for frustrated youth to express their emotions—precisely the impact he wanted to have with students in his hometown.

Each of the activities in the program is related directly to an educational outcome. For example, groups of students create their own hip-hop songs—expanding their vocabulary, showing them the power of expressing themselves, and teaching them teamwork, public speaking and communication skills.

Students in HEAL also have access to a music therapist and can visit real music studios to see potential career paths.

“Oftentimes, I think there’s so many youth who have the potential to become whatever they want to be, but the door has not necessarily been opened for them,” Kamath said.

For his work with HEAL, this past summer, Kamath was named an American Express and Ashoka Emerging Innovator of 2015—an award given to entrepreneurs who “are championing disruptive solutions to a wide range of critical challenges.”

As an emerging innovator, Kamath participated in an intensive two-day boot camp where he learned more about best practices and funding sources and connected with other young entrepreneurs.

“I think there’s a lot of problems we face together as a community, and if we just discuss these problems with one another, we can find really great solutions to make a long-lasting impact,” he said.

Get to know Kamath better with this week’s five questions.

1. What’s the one place in Cleveland that’s your must-visit for out-of-towners?

University Circle. After traveling to many other cities and countries, there are very few places that have the number of amazing cultural institutions in close proximity to one another. Visit the [Cleveland] Museum of Art in the afternoon, and head across the street to Severance Hall for a performance by the Cleveland Orchestra in the evening.

2. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a teacher?

Often times, as students, we get caught up in our grades and the hustle and bustle of college. One of my professors freshman year told our class: “In the end, grades don’t really matter. So do the best you can, move on, and focus more on being the best person you can be.”

3. What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

If you don’t know me and see me around campus, you probably think I’m super serious, but, as my friends can tell you, I’m actually quite silly at times and love good jokes and laughing.

4. What famous person—past or present—would you most like to have dinner with and where would you go?

I would want to have dinner with Oprah. She’s overcome so much adversity in her life; I would want to know how and where she got the strength to face her problems. Furthermore, she’s an innovator as well as a strong businesswoman. I’d like to learn how she finds her inspiration and balances the two. Sticking with the Cleveland theme, I’d probably go to a Michael Symon restaurant (Lola).

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The people. Everyone at Case Western is super passionate about what they believe in and what they’re involved in—from Greek Life, to community service, to Quidditch. The passion kind of rubs off in the air and creates a really great environment for school.