Finding Waheguru in Service and Education

Whether it’s through music, education, art, meditation, prayer, service or community, any individual on a spiritual journey uses different medians to connect with their faith. A religion with a beautiful history and rich beliefs, this is no exception for the extremely diverse followers of Sikhi. For some, Waheguru can be found through the musical notes of kirtan that vibrate the halls of Gurdwara Sahibs. For others, Waheguru is in the dal served in steel plates in langar halls over the world. Some find solace in fighting for sarbat da bhalla, working towards improving the environment of the sangat around them.

Throughout the last few years, I have continued to explore and question my own spirituality and try to invest myself deeper into the eternal teachings of our Gurus. Like many other Sikhs, I have searched for the different venues through which I personally connect to my faith the most—the venues that make me feel at peace. As some find Sikhi through their tablas or hymns, I am continuously inspired by and feel at one through service and knowledge.

By dedicating myself to both education and seva, my junior year in college has definitely proven to be a rollercoaster of eventful and transformative experiences. First and foremost, I wanted to continue learning as much as I possibly and physically could. Though I am blessed to be a student at a place as informative as Columbia, I was looking for opportunities that would challenge what I know and the perceptions that I have. The world is such a big place and so I was eager to move away from the traditional classroom to having the world as my classroom.

As a result, I started off the fall semester by studying abroad with International Honors Program Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning and Politics. Through this program, I lived in New Orleans, Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam and, after the program finished, in India. Travelling the world was no doubt the most profound physical, mental and spiritual experience that I’ve ever had. I have never learned so much in such a short amount of time through my homestays, classes, projects, trips and volunteer opportunities! Above all, the people I met and the places I saw were fundamental in my continuing personal development and will always hold a special place in my heart.

A picture of a mother and child in São Paulo, Brazil.

A picture of a mother and child in São Paulo, Brazil.

(If you’re interested in learning more about it, check out this video that one of the fellow students on the trip made to encapsulate the experience or scroll through some earlier posts on my blog!)

Amongst the invaluable lessons learned about social movements, community organizing, politics and urban development, this was a fantastic chance for me to question my own identity and what my place was in the world. Though I encountered very few Sikhs before my last stop in India, I feel that I learned what Sikhi is about through the many Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Rastafarians I met. Whether it was watching Catholics pray inside the church within Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro or hearing about how my Muslim host family donated money to feed those who are in more need in Cape Town, the practice and steadfast belief of seva, dasvandh, naam japna and kirt karna by people everywhere helped me to realize how important these values are for the general wellbeing of humanity.

As remarkable as those four months of my life were, the transition back to Columbia after many personal revelations was not exactly as exciting. Going from having the world as my classroom to traditional forms of learning and a long NYC winter was a hard adjustment to make. Nonetheless, not only did I transition back to school, I transitioned my energy into a different form of personal spirituality—service. By focusing my energy on doing seva needed to be done in my communities, I am glad to say that spring semester ended up turning out to be a successful one, one dedicated to further growth and development.

In terms of community organizing and social initiatives, it was an extremely productive semester with a lot of new breakthroughs. During the spring semester, I continued to work with my Columbia University Sewa family as an advisor on a variety of projects and events throughout the semester—including our annual Turban Day and a mentorship project with the Department of Justice, amongst other exciting events. Next year, we plan on organizing a weeklong event series on the Sikh Genocide of 1984 so I’m super excited to see how that turns out. Working directly with the Sikh community on campus has been extremely inspirational and I am glad we can continue to put on informational events on campus.

CU Sewa’s t-shirt during our annual Turban Day

CU Sewa’s t-shirt during our annual Turban Day

However, a huge portion of my time this semester went into starting new initiatives and organizations. Within my own community in Queens, I helped launch New York’s first Punjabi youth orientated empowerment program—a much needed move in a predominately first generation community. As a Sikh youth growing up in the city, I always felt that the proper guidance and support did not really exist for me and my peers to reach our potential. Entitled ROOP: Richmond Hill Organizing Opportunity for Punjabi Youth, I and a few other organizers created a curriculum based on leadership and scholarship to engage kids in our neighbourhood. We’ve had a handful of workshops on race, identity, professionalism and the intergenerational gap already and many more are to come this summer!

Not wanting to only focus doing seva in the Sikh/Punjabi community, I helped to facilitate the foundation of a new student organization on campus called FLIP: First Generation and Low-Income Partnership. Our purpose is to create a safe space community for people who identify as first-generation and/or low-income in order to combat the stigmas we might face, promote discussion of socioeconomic class and educational access, and advocate for resources. In addition to all the conversations we had, we launched the FLIP Book Drive as our first project. We collected over 600 textbooks from our peers to create a library that all students can access to borrow books instead of having to purchase new books every semester! Through initiatives like our book drive, I hope to help to alleviate some pressing student concerns while fostering a new support network amongst students.

Other than these projects, I had an amazing opportunity to run for  Vice President of Policy for Columbia College in order to explore a new venue for social advocacy on campus. Even though I was unsuccessful in my campaign, it was absolutely phenomenal to get the experience of running a campus wide election with 4,000+ students. I ran with such a remarkable team and I am grateful that I was able to learn about a variety of campus issues that I was not aware of. Although I did not win, I am sure all the toil and the trouble will be worth it in the long run—using many of the skills I acquired through my campaign somehow in the future. I am still wholeheartedly planning to be a part of the policy comittee on campus to push forth necessary changes needed on campus.

Upon my return to Columbia, I also had the chance to live in Casa Latina: a safe space for Latino studies and allies. Not only was it a remarkable opportunity for cultural learning, I was able to work with members of the house to start an online campaign towards the end of the semester. Inspired by President Obama’s initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper”, we aimed to help increase the visibility for men of color. Entitled the #NewDayMovement, we created a video to highlight the Columbia University men who make it through the system despite the harsh statistics laid out for the demographic. It got more than 1400+ views and I encourage you to check it out as well!

ROOP youth making collages about themselves during our workshop on identity.

ROOP youth making collages about themselves during our workshop on identity.

Although I am sad that junior year is already over, I am happy to inform that the summer is off to a good start and I am continuing my spiritual journey through seva and learning! I am currently writing from Punjab, India where I am interning this summer. I am working for Pixatel Systems which is a social enterprise focused on addressing critical developmental challenges through its Citizen Empowerment Solutions (CES). They recently received a grant from USAID to use mobile technology to improve numeracy and literacy rates in rural areas of economically developing countries. I will be working on both content development and implementation of the pilot program in two different schools. If successful, they will expand this project to 200 sites which will hopefully revolutionize the educational system in Punjab!

Junior year was definitely a busy one but extremely rewarding professionally, personally, and spiritually. I was able to accomplish a lot in a short period of time, but I am even more excited to keep moving forward with this momentum. I am extremely privileged to be a student at Columbia, the primary catalyst for all the opportunities and skills that I have had this year. But even more importantly, I believe all my adventures have been priceless for teaching me about both the values of seva and learning. In the same way my fellow Sikh brothers and sisters find Waheguru in many shapes and forms, I am glad to have found the facets of Sikhi allow me to be feel most at one with the universe that we live in.

Mandeep Singh is a senior at Columbia University. He is majoring in Urban Studies (with a specialization in Political Science) and Business Management. Apart from his academic pursuits, he is involved with a variety of social advocacy, diversity and community engagement initiatives. He is the co-founder of Columbia University Sewa, an organization based on the universal values of community service, social justice and equality.

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