The notion of community is one that I have always seen as inextricably linked up with faith. As a
young Sikh girl, I attended religious camps across the nation, but mostly in my home state of
Wisconsin. I recall that our counselors and teachers would come up with fun phrases to help us
remember tenets of Sikhi to take home and practice after camp was over. One catchphrase,
which is beautifully illustrated on our camp sweatshirt, teaches the “three S’s” of Sikhi: Seva (selfless service), Simran (meditating on God), and Sangat (community).
Although many camps focused on these three concepts as a whole, sangat is an idea that was
very delicately explained. As we were told, there is a difference between your sangat and your
saadh sangat, in that the latter meant good, or pure, company. We were meant to strive for
attaining a saadh sangat, or a group of people who would inspire us to be the best versions of
our selves. This could be our family, camp friends, school friends, teammates, and more. It was
simply those who pushed us past our limits towards the stars. Guru Granth Sahib, our Sikh holy
book, often speaks of the importance of finding and maintaining a saadh sangat:
one of two Sikh families in our town, I learned to cherish my Sikh community. It was one whose
company I enjoyed on Sundays and at the occasional religious camp. When I grew older, I
slowly started to have sleepovers at my Sikh “sister’s” houses. My camp counselors became my
older siblings and the adults in the community became my “aunts” and “uncles.” Community
turned into an extended family and I learned to rely on them for support in all aspects of life.
Most of all, I looked to them for religious inspiration and their lessons guided me on my own
journey of faith, spirituality, and identity.
Seva, or selfless service, is another one of the three S’s that I have attempted to practice in my
daily life. At camp, we always finished out the week with a “seva project,” which would
essentially consist of a creative and engaging way to serve a local community in need. Some of
the projects were writing letters to orphaned children while others were making dog and cat toys
for the local humane society. We were taught to share what we were fortunate enough to have
because it all belonged to God and we are all equal children of God.
This notion of seva has started to come into my life in ways I did not expect. Over the years,
perhaps unsurprisingly, I became more and more interested in the notion of advocacy. It was a
concept that I had been taught from a young age, although I learned about it in different terms. I
heard of Sikh martyrs throughout Sikh history, as young as 4 and 5 years old. I learned stories
of defending communities of faiths beyond our own and standing up to tyrant rulers. For my own
daily life, I was taught how to explain my faith to the very white and Christian society around me
and advocate for my right to live as a minority.
When I started college at the University of Michigan, I started to use these skills as a way to
organize. I immediately became involved with the Sikh Student Association and created
partnerships with other faith organizations, starting the Interfaith Alliance. I also became the
Michigan representative for the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh advocacy organization.
As the Sikh community fought hate crimes, shootings, and inaccuracies about our faith in
national textbooks, I raised my voice with others to educate as many individuals as possible in
my home of Ann Arbor.
However, as eventually happens, my horizons expanded when I received an internship on
Capitol Hill. I was absolutely thrilled when I found out I had been selected for the office that I
had been praying to be placed in for weeks. This Congressman was a very vocal supporter of
the Sikh American community, and I knew that I would have an incredible experience while
learning about how to do advocacy “from the inside.”
During my time on the Hill, I did learn an immense amount about how policy change truly
occurs, make meaningful relationships with the staff in my office, and meet fellow interns.
However, what was most noticeable to me was something that should not have come as a
surprise: there were very few people that looked like me.
In fact, there was only one South Asian Member of Congress at that time and very few religious
minorities. The number of times I have seen immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and
other marginalized voices discriminated by our countries’ policies all made sense once I walked
the marble halls of our Capitol. In order for these laws to best serve our entire nation, they had
to be written by our entire nation. And, as of now, that is simply not the case. It made me think
deeply about my desire to pursue a career in policy and what that would mean for my
community and many others.
I came back to campus for my senior year, but I had reflected upon my career path, realizing
that this journey would be less about me and more about seva, or the people that I would be
able to serve. I knew that if I truly wanted to serve these unheard communities, I had to be
ready to listen. These voices had been silenced for decades, and so my first step would be
finding a way to bring light to them, rather than simply finding ways to further my own career.
In part due to conversations with many internship supervisors and professors, and also due to
my own desire to travel, I started to look into ways I could go abroad. I had very little experience
traveling internationally, and many policymakers had told me that I needed to broaden my mind
beyond the United States if I wanted a true understanding of how policy should be written.
One particular fellowship caught my eye. It was only in its second year at the University, but it
offered $20,000 to graduating seniors to travel the world for 8 months. The catch? The recipient
would travel alone.
At the time, I did not consider details of each fellowship I applied to. I recall late nights in coffee
shops and libraries, writing essay after essay for multitudes of programs. I knew I just needed
one acceptance so I could finally answer that horrid question that every college senior hates:
“So, do you know what you’re doing after graduation?”
I still remember reading the email that gave me this answer:
"Dear Harleen, Congratulations!! I am delighted to inform you that you have been
selected as one of the four LSA Bonderman Fellows for 2015-2016! Your $20,000
Bonderman Travel Fellowship is intended to provide you a unique educational
opportunity to travel for an extended period and to experience a variety of different
cultures and different ways of life, challenging yourself and broadening your
understanding of the world."
I froze. I didn’t breathe for a few seconds at least and my hands were shaking. When I finally
reminded my body how to normally function, I started to process what this truly meant. I would
finally get the opportunity to satisfy my wanderlust—although part of me thinks it is
unquenchable—but it would mean doing what I most feared: spending time alone.
As an extreme extrovert (personality tests put me at 98%), I have often kept myself busy to
avoid spending time alone. This meant sports practices, full course loads, and musical
rehearsals. Any time not in a meeting would be group study time, when I got together a group of
friends to work on school work, usually in a loud coffee shop. Yet, Sikh scripture also discusses
the importance of spending time alone, as it is within ourselves that we will find Divine Light:
serve others, is certainly still present, but I wonder if I can do it without the support of my saadh
sangat by my side. It is fascinating that, in order to obtain my mission of seva, I will have to
leave behind another important “s.” Yet, I believe that this is just God’s way of teaching me that
recognizing my own Divine Light is just as important as seeing it in others.
Although I have spent extended periods of time away from home, I have always been
connected to my community in some way, and this will be the longest period of time I have been
completely on my own. On the other hand, I hope that this will be a time of personal growth and
self-reflection upon my faith and identity. I trust that all my sangat has taught me thus far will
keep me going until my return, at which point I hope to start giving back to them, and others, at
least a small portion of what they have all given me. For that is the true spirit of Sikhi.
Harleen Kaur is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in Community Action and Social Change. This fall, she will be embarking on an 8-month solo travel around the world as a Bonderman Fellow. Upon her return, Harleen would like to pursue a career serving marginalized communities, particularly immigrant, and minority racial and religious, communities. You can follow Harleen on her travels on her website and on twitter at @HarleenKaurUM.
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