by We Are Sikhs — February 18, 2019
“Everything Sikhism teaches is in tune with American values – respect, hard work, empathy, etc. Sikhism teaches me every day about how I can love, care for, and humanize those around me. As a Sikh American, I have learned what happens when a group or community is stereotyped and discriminated against because of ignorance, fear, etc. My role as a leader and woman is to constantly be challenging my own biases about the world around me so I can be a part of the solution to a global issue, not part of the problem.” said Serene Singh, Sikh American who received the world’s most prestigious scholarship.
Serene Singh talks about her journey from being a student to a freshman, to a Rhodes scholar. More than a century old, the Rhodes Scholarship is the most prestigious and one of the most competitive academic scholarships in the world. Criteria for scholarship consideration is academic excellence, great personal energy, ambition for impact, the ability to work with others, the ability to achieve goals, a commitment to making a strong difference for good in the world, concern for the welfare of others, and awareness of inequities.
What is the key to getting the Rhodes scholarship?
Rhodes was interested in seeing my long-term investment in my values and my work to empower the communities I care about including adolescent girls, women, and religious communities like Sikhs. The Rhodes Scholarship community really want world changes and not just people who chase scholarships or want to study in the UK. In my experience with the Rhodes community, they really are interested in students who are involved in many activities and have many passions but can really articulate how each and every one of them have 1) made the world better/ continue to make the world a better place and 2) are needed now more than ever and 3) are grounded and developed by a leader who is highly reflective, empathetic, and curious. I learned my values at a very young age in elementary and middle school. My college is an extension of what I am passionate about.
What are your values, what motivates you?
My Sikh faith- Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, I had trouble voicing which religion I identify with to my peers and educators. On one hand, I wanted to feel “American enough” amongst my peers in school and on the other hand, had to be “Sikh enough” when I went to the Gurudwaras (Sikh place of worship) and the Sikh camps I attended. I realized that the problem lies in really understanding in then being able to explain Sikh values to others. Everything that Sikhism believes in is very much in tune with American values, and it took me many years to realize the power and true growth that comes from being able to articulate those values and bring someone else into your world.
I care so deeply about this topic in the U.S. I am working on creating a National Sikh Youth Program (NSYP) with 5 other talented Sikh leaders in the country. The mission of this program lines up with this very principle: The National Sikh Youth Program aims to empower the next generation of Sikh leaders to respond to the needs of Sikhs around the world. We strive to create a cohort of Sikh mentors, establish toolkits, and develop skill sets for Sikh advocacy. Bringing together these Sikh leaders at an annual capstone Summit, we hope to develop a deeper connection with Gurbani, public service, and leadership.
We are hoping this program will empower young Sikhs to civically engage in their community and really showcase what Sikh values are and who are Sikhs in the first place.
Gender equality – I believe in empowering women to shine as bright as possible from the inside out and really helping teach whatever skills I may have to help them realize the value and power of their dreams and goals. For me, especially through my nonprofit organization called The Serenity Project, I work a lot with women survivors from many backgrounds including domestic violence, foster care, human trafficking, etc. These women come into the program insecure and disheartened by the world. Our job with the Project is to provide whatever tools and resources necessary for these women to feel empowered, grow through what they have gone through by giving back in their own personal project, and truly gaining self-confidence skills to feel beautiful.
Value of justice – It started in elementary school when I was part of student government. Since I have been young, I have always noticed happenings around me I did not think was fair. For one, I remember some students in elementary school having to be put in a separate line if they did not have financial means to buy lunch. Other students were mocking those that were in the line and I still remember yelling in my high-pitched squeaky voice telling them something along the lines of, “all of us need some help here and there, stop making fun of others for being brave.” I have a few memories like that… I just really believe in advocating against injustice and really channeling that passion for justice to make the world around us better.
Why these values motivate you? Where do you get them from?
Gratitude - Huge part of my motivation and reason to get up and keep going every day has been gratitude. I often reflect on the wonderful opportunities that I have – I would not be celebrating something like the Rhodes if not for my family, best friends, recommenders, mentors and support system I have around the world. Yet, I know that someone who is more talented, more intelligent, more everything than me might not even have access to those opportunities and that ability to dream big dreams. The idea of others not having access to the same abilities to dream, that I have been able to, always hurts me. In almost everything I do, I work to give that access to other people, who systematically might not have otherwise had that opportunity, so that they can dream and accomplish even more than I can ever imagine. Part of our job as Sikhs and humans is to be a part of a greater community in this world in which we are all uplifting and adding to the lives of one another. I am motivated by the idea of “each one, teach one,” constantly trying to pay forward my experiences and opportunities so others can run even further than I have been able to.
Sikh values that motivate me- When I was applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, I had to dive deep and really reflect on the common thread that binds together all that I was doing- that was courage. My last name Singh means lion, to me, it is all about courage and how I am able to apply bravery and fearlessness when in it 1) challenges me most and 2) is in the face of adversity. Growing up, there have been countless incidents against the Sikh community- shootings, attacks in metro and train stations, unfair treatment by law enforcement officials, bullying, etc. I think as a result of understanding how it feels to be negatively stereotyped and discriminated, I wanted to always be on the other end of the equation not just for Sikhs but for every single community and group I had biases or negative stereotypical understandings of.
Sikhism taught me about love, to humanize people. I want to speak up and explain, humanize a group and get them rid of the biases so that they know Sikhs as a group of people they can trust. As a Sikh American, I would expect other Sikhs to do the same and humanize groups and people who think, talk, act, or look different than they might.
I try to understand people who think differently and why they think that way. By immersing myself in areas unfamiliar or with opinions that discomfort me, I grow to be a stronger leader and better human being. This is how I am constantly challenging who I am and trying to understand different communities.
What would be your advice to other young people on having a successful college career?
Find a strong mentor. My mentors could see my trajectories and see why I was doing the things that I was doing, they could see how I was being a leader. The best thing I have done in college: Find people that lead in a way that you want to lead, make them your mentors, follow them, learn as much as you can from them. Think of yourself as a sponge, surround yourself with people smarter than you, pick their brains and soak in as much knowledge as you can.
Connect the dots in your life. Try to understand why you are doing the things you are doing, what is the underlying value behind all of that. Be true to who you are, don’t worry about what will look nice on your resume, don’t worry about building your perfect profile to get to the next stage or degree in life, be more concerned about the impact that you are making and the type of person you are striving to become. Find a way to navigate around as best as you can and be true and honest with your dreams, your character, etc. – just be 100% real with yourself. Get rid of what everyone else expects or asks of you, listen to what you want and run towards that and only that!
Try something new. Take a strange class, work for a community you don’t know anything about, befriend someone who has lived a life very different from your own – always be working on something that is not “in-line” with what the typical person might think you’re involved in. Those experiences will broaden your mind and humble your spirits, they will teach you even more about who you are and what your deepest passions are. Remember that you are not growing in college or anywhere in the world if you are doing the same activities and hanging out with the same people as before. COURAGE, discomfort, and open-mindedness are not only important to becoming self-aware but also, gaining respecting and finding beauty in every single person and part of the world around you.