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Cultural Studies

news3Donations allow UCSC’s unique Sikh and Punjabi studies program to grow

Getting singled out and patted down at American airports is something Nirvikar Singh has come to expect while traveling. Rather than act frustrated, he laughs good-naturedly while discussing it. It’s something many Sikhs have dealt with in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, he explains.

Singh has lived in the United States since 1977 when he moved from his home country of India, whose Punjab region birthed the Sikh religion. He wears the customary Sikh turban and beard—characteristics that have led many confused Americans to mistake Sikhs for Muslims or, worse, for members of the Islamist terrorist group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

“All we can do is try to help other Americans understand who we are. That’s very important, and not just in order to avoid harassment,” Singh says with a patient smile. “There’s a constant struggle now for Sikhs to avoid being profiled, and to protect their civil rights, but there’s a broader desire to be understood and respected for who we are, what our tradition is and what our culture is.”

Singh has been a professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz since 1982, and, in 2011, he added the role of Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies to his duties—an opportunity that will help him advance the understanding of Sikh and Punjabi culture in academia.

The chair was established through an endowment given in the memory of the donors’ son, for whom the position is named. Although Singh’s field is economics, and the freshly formed program resides in humanities, he accepted the position because he “felt that as a Sikh I owed it to the community to do my best.” His first undertaking was to create a course—“Introduction to the Sikhs”—which was offered for the first time in Fall 2011, and which Singh donated his time to teach.

Sikh and Punjabi studies is somewhat of a rarity in American academics, and most programs—including those at UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside, Hofstra University and the University of Michigan, where there are also endowed chairs—focus on religion. Singh’s approach is one-of-a-kind, spanning culture, music, history, religion and, fittingly, economics. “There are a lot of economic angles one can explore, whether it’s the economy of Punjab, or Sikh entrepreneurs in the United States,” he says.

However, the class, which Singh looks forward to teaching again next fall, largely became an examination of what it means to be a minority culture in a broader society. About half of the class’ 35 students were of Sikh heritage, and the other half was mostly comprised of students from other ethnic minorities. “One of the interesting aspects was discussing how minorities fit into modern America and what it means to be a pluralistic, multicultural, or global society,” he says.

In November, UCSC hosted a conference, “Sikh and Punjabi Studies: Achievements and New Directions,” that drew leading scholars from North America and England, as well as many students and community members. “It was a really good conversation about Sikh studies,” Singh says, noting that UCSC has potential to become a hub for the field.

This month, the program received another boost in form of a $247,000 donation from The Guru Nanak Heritage Fund for Sikh and Punjabi Studies. The gift was an effort of the broader Bay Area Sikh and Punjabi community, which, for Singh, makes it “exceptionally meaningful.” He and UCSC humanities dean William Ladusaw, who has been instrumental in molding the program, plan to use the donation to create a Punjabi language course.

“Without knowledge of language, one can only access things, in some sense, secondhand,” says Singh. “The Sikh sacred book is written in Punjabi, and there is a lot of other literature in Punjabi. The language is a doorway to the heritage, to the culture, [and] to these unique teachings.”

If all goes as planned, the class will be up and running in time for the 2012 summer session, when it will be offered at a satellite site in the Bay Area. This, along with the fact that summer courses are open to non-UCSC students, would increase access for the broader Sikh community. (While Santa Cruz is home to very few Sikhs, the Bay Area is home to thousands, evidenced by San Jose laying claim to the largest Sikh gurdwara—akin to a church or temple—in North America.)

“There are very few Punjabi language programs in the U.S. and most, if not all, are taught during the regular academic year,” explains Singh. “So we’d be able to create a program that would complement what is already available in the country, and really serve as a national resource.”

The program’s slow but positive growth contradicts the general climate at UCSC, where budget cuts are threatening courses and departments. “The budget situation is just so horrendous,” says Singh. “The only way we were able to start something new like this was because of the support of the community.”

Singh says the gifts have given UCSC the unique opportunity to plant seeds for better understanding of the Sikh and Punjabi culture at a time when cultural understanding is essential.

“The goal [of the program] is not just to study the Sikhs in isolation, but very much as part of a global community,” he says. “There are some very important issues throughout the world in terms of coping with multiculturalism. The Sikh community provides one interesting doorway into that broader perspective.”

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