“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.” – Rabindranath Tagore
If you were to tell me ten years ago that today I would be working professionally in higher education, I would not have believed you. In fact, I could not even begin to comprehend what “student affairs” was at that time. However, in the past ten years, a remarkable set of experiences and decisions have opened my eyes to pursuing a three-part life purpose: empowering students to find a sense of belonging, preparing students for life post-college, and establishing my identity as a Desi student affairs professional.
Change is a constant. I wouldn’t have changed my experience for the world, yet positive change has followed me at every juncture. Meeting people who look like me in the field I chose to pursue continues to be the most fulfilling of experiences, but separate, definitive moments have lead me to where I am today. Therefore, I choose here to describe moments in my student affairs journey. Meaningful moments. Pivotal moments.
Pivotal Moment #1: Realizing I am in fact, Desi.
This exploration involves personal background on me. My parents are Malayalees who immigrated from India about 30 years ago. I was born in Houston, and I identify as Desi American. Although today Houston boasts one of the largest Desi enclaves in the United States, I grew up in a suburb outside of Houston in the late 80s and the 90s where not many people looked like me. In fact, for several years, I was often the only Desi in my class. Needless to say, I was a target of microaggressions and indignities. Although I was born here and I’m an American, I was made to feel like a foreigner. But through my primary and secondary education, I befriended peers who shared similar backgrounds as me, and I carefully started to connect my respective Indian and American heritages, rather than juxtapose them.
Pivotal Moment #2: Taking pleasure in being Desi.
I finally felt comfortable in my skin when I got to college at UT Austin where student organizations, cultural dance teams, and other affinity groups made me feel welcome. I was involved in an independent Desi film. I spoke at undergraduate leadership conferences. I unabashedly shared my identity with administrators. I took on mentorship roles where I assisted fellow Desi students navigate college. It all catalyzed my decision to pursue student affairs professionally.
Pivotal Moment #3: Feeling satisfaction in my career choice.
I’ve always had a strong desire to see people succeed. Both my parents have given their time and energy to support others – family, friends, and strangers; I assume I invariably gained this nurturing inclination from them. When I first told them I wasn’t planning to go to medical school like we all envisioned, they were taken aback. But when I said I’d much rather help healthy people be the best they can be instead of help sick people feel better, they were on-board. With my parents’ blessing, my mentors’ encouragement, and internal satisfaction as students of mine surpassed their potential, it was clear I was in a place where I needed to be.
Pivotal Moment #4: Accepting wisdom from professionals who looked like me.
I have had the privilege to be mentored on my home campus by incredible Desi women – Dr. Smita Ruzicka, Dr. Hemlata Jhaveri, and Dr. Suchitra Gururaj. Not only have they paved the path for me as it relates to pursuing a higher education career at UT Austin, they are also personally invested in my success as a practitioner and scholar. Furthermore, other esteemed Desi professionals, like Dr. Mamta Accapadi (who completed her higher education at UT Austin) and Dr. Ajay Nair (a fellow Malayalee), serve as exemplars for all of us – compassionate, intentional, driven people who unapologetically serve students on their campuses and the field at large.
Pivotal Moment #5: Rooting myself in my #HigherEdDesi family.
NASPA 2015 was an awakening. It wasn’t just professional development – it became personal, too. Besides the Asian/Pacific Islander Knowledge Community, I spent time with my fellow Desi colleagues, and for the first time in a while, I let my guard down. I felt at home. There were people who understood my struggles and shared in my successes. Today, we continue to be steadfast in our support for each other, and that feeling is indescribable. It gives me perspective on my transformation from shy science kid, to active student leader, and aspiring practitioner-scholar. It reassures me to count meaningful moments as they happen, and not months. And to live my life’s purpose, I certainly have time enough.
This post is part of our #HigherEdDesi series, which aims to share the stories of what it means to identify as “Desi” and working in higher ed. We hope to provide a context of how we came into Higher Education and what that journey looked like for each one of us. For more information, please see Juhi Bhatt’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!
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