Club Feature: The Sikh Student Association is forming community without focusing on numbers
SSA is just about one year old and has fewer than 10 members, but its leaders are excited about their expanding community
Nikki Randhawa and Simrnjit Seerha met outside their freshmen dorm halls in their first year at American University. Seerha dropped her One Card and Randhawa picked it up for her. They began talking and found out they shared a cultural and religious identity; they are both part of the small Sikh student population at AU.
Now, as seniors, they are the president and vice president, respectively, of one of AU’s newest clubs: the Sikh Student Association.
Randhawa and Seerha see SSA as a space for Sikh students to feel less isolated and alone on AU’s campus and a place where they can connect with other people of similar backgrounds, experiences and values.
“I think even having a group of three to four people makes all the more difference, because you know that when you get together with this group, there's a sense of shared identity,” Seerha said. “And that is so helpful, especially when you're going to a predominantly white school."
SSA became an official club last spring, but its roots go back further.
Deep Kaur, an alumna of AU who is returning to pursue her master’s in international relations, was a vital part of SSA’s beginnings. As a Sikh student at AU, Kaur missed being surrounded by people who shared her same religious and cultural identity.
Kaur said that former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was a crucial time for her as an undergraduate student. It made her realize the importance of having a community to turn to in a time of such confusion and chaos.
“That was a moment where I was like we really need to have an SSA,” Kaur said. “We need to have these open spaces and places where, as students, we can talk about what's bothering us, how are we being affected and also just [talk] about things in general that happen at AU.”
At predominantly white institutions like AU, it can be hard for students of color to find their community without a designated organization. Clubs like SSA that create a community based around shared cultural experiences and religious beliefs can make the transition into college and away from family less isolating for students, Kaur said.
"When you live away from home, it can be kind of tough to find your group of people,” Kaur said. “Especially for people who might be... not so used to being in a crowd where there’s more non-Indian people or more Caucasian people rather than people of their own community."
Kaur began hosting weekly meetings in the library to gather AU’s small Sikh population and talk about their culture and religion. The meetings were based around a structured program developed by an SSA at a university in California that facilitated discussions about Sikhi and specific issues Sikh students face on campus.
The goal of the program was to help Sikh students eventually create their own official SSA. As sophomores, Randhawa and Seerha attended some of these weekly meetings.
Kaur graduated from AU in December 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, before SSA became an official club. She said that, as a graduate student, she would “definitely love” to connect with AU’s SSA.
“I really am excited for them to continue this work and I really hope I get to be a part of it,” Kaur said.
This semester, SSA is hosting weekly virtual Gurbani Veechar on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. where they discuss interpretations of the Kirtan Sohila, a group of sacred texts written by three Sikh Gurus, over Zoom. They also co-hosted an event with the South Asian Student Association on March 4 called the Farmers Protest Teach-In, which included discussions about the history and the current day issues related to farmers’ protests in India.
As of right now, SSA is small — most meetings are attended by the four members of the executive board and one or two other people — but Randhawa said that she is not focusing too much on the numbers right now. She said she is just proud that they were able to get the club up and running, to begin with, and she hopes that its existence allows Sikh students to feel less isolated at AU.
“What I would hope for in the long run is that Sikh students on campus aren't alienated or isolated, where they can fully have a space to practice our religion and learn more about our religion and the rich history that comes from it,” Randhawa said.
Seerha said that the diversity of South Asian culture calls for more focused groups where students can analyze and talk about their identities in more depth.
“India itself has thousands and thousands of cultures, and each culture is so specific,” Seerha said. “That’s why not only having a SASA is wonderful, but, on top of that, having the Sikh Student Association, where your identity is even more magnified so you can really critically analyze it and understand it.”
Randhawa said that being the president of SSA has involved her learning more about Sikhi and Sikh history on her own. Coming from a Catholic school, she said she knew more about Christianity than she did about Sikhi. And, even now, she said she is still learning about Sikhi every day.
“Coming to Sikhi was actually very comforting and I'm glad that I had that experience of not being able to know much about my cultural-religious identity to now having a good handle of it and how it influences my life currently,” Randhawa said
Seerha said that SSA has been academically stimulating for her as well. AU doesn't offer as much of a variety of courses about South Asia, so Seerha’s work in getting ready for the weekly Gurbani Veechar and events such as the teach-in has been “academically fulfilling,” she said.
Seerha and Randhawa said that their main goal for SSA and a tradition they hope carries on in SSA after they both graduate in May, is engagement with activism. This started with the teach-in with SASA, and they are looking to do more because Sikhi is known for being radical, advocating for human dignity and challenging unjust traditions, they said.
“Sikhi is just rooted inherently in activism and fighting against oppression, injustice,” Randhawa said “I hope that future members of SSA can also focus on that as well because I feel like it's part of our praxis as Sikhs to do so.”