It is arrogant, I know. But when I started in the field of student affairs, I thought I was the only one. The only Desi in the field. I really thought I was special. I mean, there are some legitimate reasons for why I thought I was the only one.
Exhibit A: For a long long time, I really was the only one at my institution in student affairs.
Exhibit B: Let’s remember that I started in this profession before the mainstream existence and use of the internet and email.
Exhibit C: Don’t all Desi kids become doctors, engineers, attorneys, dentists, or whatever the heck one does with an MIS degree?
Exhibit D: I was (or it felt like I was) the only one among all of my Desi friends and peers older than me, or in my class, to pursue this field of student affairs.
I can still remember at all of the weddings (so.many.weddings.) where aunties and uncles would offer me unsolicited career advice. “Beta, you like leadership? Why not get an MBA?” Or my personal favorite, “people will not think you are smart if you are studying education- and who will marry you?’
I really thought I was the only one. You have to laugh at my innocence… ignorance… naivety…
In my very first class in graduate school when we learned about identity development, my faculty member told me that I was an international student. I believed her. As an undergraduate, I didn’t even learn about Asian American history- aside from the Japanese American internment- a project I pursued on my own. I studied biochemistry and microbiology in college, like a dutiful Desi daughter (and that journey is an entirely different story).
I went through graduate school generally confused- with only one piece of clarity- “How could I be the mentor I never had-in the field of multicultural affairs?” I had great mentors, but I mean how could I fill the gap for APIDA students broadly, contribute to the broader access conversation, and also support Desi students specifically? Who would hire me for that? If multicultural affairs was too ‘niche’ of a field, imagine articulating wanting to support Asian American students- on a campus, in a time when we were so invisible, that we were irrelevant!
I came to Asian American studies on accident. I am so grateful for my involvement in cultural student organizations. When I went to college- one of my favorite things to do was to take my boombox (yes- boombox- with cassette tapes) to a hidden room in the Texas Union, called the Tower Room. Nobody knew about that room, full of mirrors, a secret dance rehearsal space- and I would dance for hours in that room, every Saturday morning. The dancing led to ISA involvement, and the ISA involvement is how I REALLY entered student affairs.
While I critique food, dance, and festival events- my critique begins if food-dance-festival is where we stop in our inclusion of students. It is where my alma mater stopped for me. As a leader in ISA, and one of the first of my Desi peers to have broader institutional recognition, I was always invited to the table when there was a need for a performance (thanks to my Bhangra team friends for winning the very FIRST Texas Revue Talent show). I was not ever at the table when the institution should have been able to discern through demographic projections, that the APIDA population would reach over 20% of certain colleges in the coming decade.
I was a timid girl, who became an activist because the Union would not let us cater Indian food for a Diwali event, unless we paid an extra fee for using an external caterer. A timid girl who didn’t get a satisfactory answer to why we couldn’t reserve spaces for dance practice. A timid girl who kept asking why? I was not trying to be an activist- I just wanted to have my food-dance-festival. I am still that timid girl.
My first taste of leading beyond cultural programming came when I joined a group called the Asian Relations Committee. This group worked beyond the limitations of a group called the Asian American Culture Committee, that only did cultural events that were Asian American representations of Asian festivals, and the only race based committee with more white students than Asian or Asian American students.
I came to Asian American studies when ten students from UT-Austin were arrested because of their advocacy of the Asian American studies program in 1999. That was the first time I understood with clarity, the Asian American experience. And then, I couldn’t get enough. I was among the first to do independent studies with the first Asian American studies faculty members in an attempt to catch up. When I learned that Asian American history began (arguably) over 400-500 years ago, I was shocked. Being the only one made sense if our people had ‘just’ gotten here… but multiple centuries? More personally, the Sikh/Punjabi history really impacted me. My people were here over a century ago, and I had no clue. I didn’t learn this in high school, or college. I stumbled upon it in graduate school. I stumbled upon it in my first year of my doctoral program.
When I learned the history, I could not hold the frustration. I could not contain my impatience and advocacy for APIDA visibility, access, and equity. I felt betrayed by my teachers and cheated of an education that could have contributed to my empowerment. And that was the beginning of angry-Mamta. I could not understand how we could be so deeply invisible and underrepresented, and not a single educator acknowledged it, either because they didn’t know, or that somehow doing so would take away from other under-represented communities of color. And, while I could be in a compassion space for my mentors not knowing broadly about APIDA students, I could not reconcile why they never made the effort to learn. This is something I think about every day as a VP- particularly related to my dominant identities.
I learned about Bhagat Singh Thind, and Dalip Singh Saund, and more. I realized I was not the first generation of Desis born in the US- that many generations had come and gone before me. And I felt less alone. It is so critically important that we all take the time to read about our complex history and stories. If we don’t know and tell our history, someone else will rewrite it and tell it for us, on their terms. You can start with anything by Sunaina Maira, Rajini Srikanth, Lavina Dhingra Shankar, Vijay Prashad, Khyati Joshi, Pawan Dhingra, Ajay Nair, Shamita Das Dasgupta, and more… Read postcolonial theory- Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha and Edward Said.
Being the only one meant, that in my time at UT-Austin, I advised every Desi (and almost every Asian American) group in some capacity (religious, greek-letter, cultural, performance, service), and this was on top of my job responsibilities- almost 20 student organizations. Times had changed since the days of ISA and PSA of my undergraduate college days.
I wonder who I could have been, and how I might have led if I had known that I wasn’t the only one.
Do you know what it feels like to be the only one? To be visible and invisible at the same time? Imagine Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway. You get accustomed to being alone, accepting that nobody will find you, reconciling that you will find peace in that loneliness and solitude. You develop methods of coping that seem… odd to others.
And you get angry.
And then you heal.
And then you fall in love with yourself and your liberation.
And then you radiate with a joy that is unlike any emotion you have ever felt in your life.
You all deserve that. We all deserve that.
This post is a follow up to Mamta’s original post titled, Honoring the Constellations of Sacrifice: Unapologetically, Polyculturally, #HigherEdDesi
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!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Maryann Krieglstein on Social Justice & White Privilege