As a minoritized person in this country, I never learned about the history of other people who look like me. I cannot identify a single Desi American person I learned about sitting in my classrooms in Downers Grove, IL. Luckily, I somehow stumbled across an amazing, and now defunct, blog called Sepia Mutiny. Through this blog, I developed my first Desi role models- bloggers from all over the country who were creating content to teach and expose other Desi people to politics, culture, art, music and more about the breadth and depth of the Desi diaspora. So that’s where my most meaningful education began- outside the classroom, and on my own.
In college, I found a meaningful community of politically and social justice-minded friends, but again- much of my education about these topics were happening in alternative spaces, such as the Asian American Cultural Center, random “extra” lectures I was attending or, again, through blogs from folks all over the country. I was blessed to go to a University with a vibrant Asian American Studies program. For the first time in my life, I was learning that, unlike the story of my family and so many other Desi folks, people from India (this was before Pakistan and Bangladesh were created as countries) had been in the United States for over 200 years. I learned about people like Bhagat Singh Thind and A.K. Mozumdar, who fought for the deceptively simple right to be recognized as American citizens.
I also learned about the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act)- the piece of legislation that created “preferences” for folks to immigrate from certain Asian countries studying particular professions (mostly what is now referred to as STEM fields), but still barred folks who came from working class backgrounds, LGBTQ folks, and more from entering the US. This is the law that made it possible for my father, who came from an upper middle class background and studied Engineering, to immigrate to the United States. So when I reflect on the question of being a Desi working in Higher Education, I sit in the messy space of residing in a profession where the US government never actually intended for someone like me to enter.
Most of all, my identity as Desi was politicized because of amazing faculty and higher education administrators, Desi and non-Desi, and almost all exclusively Asian American. I learned and talked about concepts such as cultural citizenship, labor politics, feminism, and rooted it all in critical theory, literature, poetry, and performance. I was Desi and proud of it, and my path into student affairs was rooted in my Desi identity and politics. Showing up to a protest against the Coca-Cola contract at the University of Illinois, doing a presentation about the (now removed) racist mascot, and showing up to a garba were all integrally connected and I had friends, faculty, and family that supported all of these connections as a whole.
I joined Higher Education because I know a story like mine is rare. Because of people who came before me- the activists, scholars, mentors, and organizers- I was able to have an experience that, in my mind, feels almost like a symphony. Of course, it hasn’t been perfect- I still remember all of the tears I shed along the way because I also heard from other Desi and non-Desi folks that I was “too different”, I wasn’t making “practical” decisions with my English Major and Asian American Studies Minor, and that I was moving “too far away” from my family. It’s been hard (nee, exhausting) trying to be a good daughter, sister, cousin, practitioner, scholar, activist, friend, partner, and person. I still haven’t figured it all out, and I’m not sure I ever will, to be honest.
While the #HigherEdDesi community, and the friend, mentors, and peer mentors I have made are rich, it can still be lonely. I wish I could say that I have stopped feeling the isolation in my activism from within and outside the Higher Education community, but it still happens. I’m grateful for the folks who I have in and outside the field who continue to tie their work in Higher Education to action-based social justice advocacy, and who empower me to be better at everything I do.
I got into Higher Education to support and build spaces like I had access to, to promote integration of intersectional identities. I work to root our work in the sacrifices and investments of those who came before me. I work to continue learning about what it means to be a Desi person working in a field rooted in colonial legacy that at one point denied people like me entering its doors, and at another is integrally rooted in the reason I am in the United States today. Like my Desi experience, my Higher Education journey is also one muddled in access, is full of challenges, and one I am ultimately wildly proud to be a part of.
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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