With grandparents born in Pakistan, parents born in India, and my sister and I born in the United States, I am an amalgamation of three generations over three countries. While growing up at the forefront of distinct cultures has been challenging at times, I was lucky to have a childhood surrounded by people who looked like me and had experiences similar to mine.
I am a Sikh, and growing up I formed some of my first friendships at the gurdwara in Maryland (the Sikh temple). My friends from the gurdwara understood the challenges of being a religious minority and educating others about our beliefs. As I went through middle school and high school, a diverse group of friends helped me navigate the cultural differences I encountered in school and at home. Through various South Asian languages, Bhangra dance teams, Hindi and Punjabi music, Sikh summer camps, and food, I formed a sense of identity and connection to my roots.
Although I was certainly proud to be an Indian American and a Sikh, I never felt these factors were at the forefront of my identity. I considered myself adaptable and open to meeting a diverse set of people, so I didn’t think much of my transition to a predominantly white institution for college.
The University of Richmond is small and feels even smaller. Once I had gotten through the first week of my freshman year, I saw very few others who seemed to be of South Asian descent. I didn’t see any other Sikhs on campus, and I realized I was the only Sikh student. I look back now and recognize that the anxiety that set in was really just a feeling of isolation. I regretted picking the University of Richmond over my state school in Maryland; I knew my transition would have been seamless if I was surrounded by others that were like me. I started a countdown of how many days I had left until graduation and decided the University of Richmond could never be my home.
By my second week I realized South Asian students did in fact exist on campus, and that the majority of them were all international students. While I didn’t feel “Indian” enough to fit in with the South Asian international students, I also didn’t feel “American” enough to fit in with the American students. I compared myself to the international students and began to question what made me truly Indian. Was my broken Hindi enough? How about my fluent Punjabi? Were my parents’ childhood stories of Diwali fireworks and Eid celebrations in India enough to make me feel like I had a connection to these holidays too? I visit my family in India every other year, and I certainly know my South Asian history and geography. So why was I so intimidated, and why did I feel inadequate?
Eventually, I learned that I don’t need to be surrounded by people with similar experiences and backgrounds to feel understood. I joined the Muslim Students Association and met an incredible group of people who didn’t care about the label on my religious beliefs. They wanted to hear my thoughts and ideas during spiritual discussions and reflections, and they are my family just as much as any Sikh Student Association could have been.
I joined the Bollywood Jhatkas dance team in my freshman year and have continued to be a part of the team throughout college. At first, I didn’t like the fact that our small team wasn’t big enough to compare to other, more competitive collegiate teams. Yet, even though we may not have tryouts or big competitions, the representation of South Asian art and culture on our small campus is so important. I’m grateful to have a dance team that is open to all and works hard to represent parts of our culture on campus.
Three years later, I am lucky enough to be friends with some of the bravest and most intelligent individuals I have ever met. Majority of my friends are international students; we come from the United States, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Georgia, Sudan, and from various places all over the world. Our different backgrounds and identities have expanded my perspective and pushed me to grow, and I have learned so much from them. My friends who are international students from South Asia have prompted me to reflect upon my identity and I feel closer to my roots than I ever have before. My close-knit community at the University of Richmond has truly shaped who I am today.
It is easy for students at my school to find bubbles of people who are similar to themselves and stick to those bubbles, which isolates students like myself who don’t really fit in any bubble. I used to blame myself for struggling to adapt to college, but I cannot escape the fact that a large part of the lack of diversity and exclusive nature of social life at my school can be attributed to the university administration and other factors outside of my control. As I start my senior year, I want to work towards creating an inclusive community where individuals value differences instead of questioning whether or not they are enough. Whether I can bring about change through leadership positions on campus or through this position as part of South Asian Student Productions, I believe representation and space for minorities are essential.
Over the years, I forgot about the countdown I started after my miserable first week of freshman year. The University of Richmond has become my home and I can’t wait to see what my final year will bring!