A leader of leaders

A Syracuse University professor and former refugee opens his home to the international community to raise world-changers.

It’s a typical Saturday night and professor Alex Thevaranjan’s living room is packed. Around 20 students from a wide variety of nationalities sit on the room’s colorful couches, chairs, and cushions, and listen eagerly to the week’s lesson. Today, they are learning about their DNA – desires, needs, and assets – to help formulate their goals.

The students are immigrants and refugees in high school. They discuss the needs in the world: ending world hunger, striving for racial equality, and fighting against poverty. They look at their desires and how they want to help. One student wants to make education more accessible, another wants to fight racism. Then they determine what assets they have and how they can achieve their goals. Their mentors are college students, some of whom live in Thevaranjan’s house, and guide them through the process.

“When he talks, you listen,” said Mura Gichane, a Syracuse University student who is a mentor in the program and one of Thevaranjan’s 12 housemates. “You listen because he’s always trying to help you and understand you.”

Thevaranjan has a soft voice and is quick to smile. His house is named House of Daniels, a reference to the biblical hero, and in honor of his late father of the same name. The house is open to international students of faith, who pay $360 a month for a private room, or $240 for a shared room — a steal for housing on-campus.

"He is creating a space for support by teaching from his experiences,” said James Yu, who has lived at House of Daniels for over a year.

Thevaranjan and his wife fled persecution from the Sinhalese ethnic majority in Sri Lanka about 30 years ago. An intelligent young man with a degree in engineering, he was able to get a scholarship and continue his education in the U.S, leading to a PhD in accounting. He now teaches accounting at Syracuse University.

In the Lender auditorium at the Whitman School of Management, 100 students eagerly type notes on their laptops. Though accounting is possibly one of the driest subjects in the book, tremors of excitement pervade Thevaranjan’s usually quiet voice when he explains different balance sheets and formulas. He walks through the auditorium comfortably; he’s in his element.

A student’s hand shoots up, and Thevaranjan takes her question. Apparently, it’s a good one, so he peels off a bright yellow sticky note from the pad in his hand and tells her to pick it up at the end of class. Each sticky note is an extra point that students earn by asking questions and participating in class.

When they ask questions, the students call Thevaranjan “Coach T.” Three students in his class said that it’s because he doesn’t believe they should be fighting against him, but that he is a partner in their fight against accounting.

His love of teaching doesn’t end in the classroom. Shewa Shwani, a former Kurdish refugee and a student at SUNY ESF, is one of the mentors for Thevaranjan’s Saturday lessons. Shwani recalled her first day with the leadership program, a trip to the Adirondacks during which their bus broke down on the road.

“He used that bad situation and turned it into a good one,” Shwani said.

Instead of causing panic, Thevaranjan didn’t let on that anything was wrong, and instead treated it like a routine stop where he was meant to deliver a lesson.

“He taught us things that we were meant to learn during the trip,” Shwani said. “We didn’t know what was going on but he made us feel safe.”

Professor Thevaranjan in House of Daniels, where he holds weekend lessons for high school students and hosts international college students

Professor Thevaranjan in House of Daniels, where he holds weekend lessons for high school students and hosts international college students

While the leadership program started this past January, Thevaranjan started House of Daniels 21 years ago, after traveling to many countries and seeing the unmet needs in the world. Unsure of how he could help, he turned to his faith in God for an answer, and decided to raise youth to become leaders and help them find out what needs they could tackle.

His goal is to have 25 world-changing leaders come out of House of Daniels, the likes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. So far, over 250 people have shared Thevaranjan’s house.

“We spoke over the phone, and I was desperately looking for a place to live,” Gichane said, recalling the first time he spoke to Thevaranjan, who was teaching a summer course in South Korea at the time. “At the end he just prayed for me. I’ve never had someone pray for me over the phone before.”

Thevaranjan is a devout evangelical Christian and a pastor. He delivers sermons at a Korean church in Syracuse, and once a month, he goes to Buffalo and Toronto to deliver sermons. He said there is definitely a “God-element” to House of Daniels, and people of all faiths are welcome. In their home, they find many ways to practice their faiths, including prayer meetings that Thevaranjan holds every morning.

At a meeting last week, Thevaranjan and a handful of his 12 housemates filtered into the living room at around 7 AM – a few still in their pajamas. Thevaranjan shared about a recent health scare and the power of confession. “I was thinking ‘what if she says I have cancer?’ Then I will confess it to God… Having sickness inside of you is sinful.”

He believes that when something is not how it should be, even physically, it is a form of sin. When a body is unhealthy, which it isn’t supposed to be, he said that the sick person should confess to God that there is sin in their body.

“Living in that house and feeling that somebody was actually living out what the gospel says in a Christian context was really refreshing,” Yu said.

“He’ll always deflect … If I ask ‘how did you do that?’ He’ll say, ‘God’s grace’,” Gichane said with a chuckle. “It’s one of his favorite sayings. Very humble guy.”

Yu and Gichane both admit that they didn’t have a strong sense of direction or purpose before they moved into House of Daniels, and said Thevaranjan pushed them to grow.

“He believes that if you have God, you shouldn’t feel stress,” Yu said. “When he sees that I’m getting stressed, he’ll make time for a meeting.”

While Thevaranjan is supportive and tries to help his housemates, he also has high standards. Gichane said that Thevaranjan can be firm when he feels that the people who he believes in are not living up to his standards.

 “He’s one of those guys you don’t want to disappoint. I’d be better off if he chewed me out verbally than if he said he was disappointed in me,” Gichane said.

Thevaranjan has conditions for everyone living in House of Daniels; no drinking, smoking, or sex in the house. Residents must also attend one morning prayer a week, have family dinner together on Saturday, and attend a one-on-one mentorship session with Thevaranjan once a week.

For those who don’t follow the rules, Thevaranjan has a simple solution.

“If they don’t want to follow the rules they should leave,” he said. “I won’t hold it against them.”

Besides working as a professor, delivering sermons on weekends, running a full-time mentorship program and weekend lessons, Thevaranjan doesn’t have many hobbies. He said fulfilling God’s will and helping others already keeps him relaxed.

He has wealthy relations, and could afford to stop working completely if he wanted to, but he chooses to keep his job. He loves his work, and laughed at the thought of retiring.

“My job is play, not work, why would I ever want to leave?” Thevaranjan said with a smile.