Two days after the devastation back home, when I reached the office of India Studies Center at Stony Brook University (where I teach), about a dozen students were seated around a table. I knew that there are about five undergraduate Nepali-speaking students in the university, among nearly 24 thousand students total. Here were about a dozen, so I thought some must be from the rest of South Asia. Turns out, as usual, that didn’t matter: whatever their language and background, they were all global citizens who blurred boundaries of identity with their big hearts and their ambitious actions. The main agenda was a big South Asia- focused cultural event for fundraising. As I want to highlight in this piece, these students broaden the meaning and function of education as members of a global community of humans in an interconnected world, especially when another part of the world can use some support from people around the world.
Among the two Nepali students whom I already knew, one was absent, but she was frequently updating the team about project progress. The other, who was featured in the book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World—written by John Wood, the former Microsoft execute who was inspired during a trip to Nepal to start the organization named Room to Read—was there. Professor SN Sridhar, Chair of the Center, alongside Professor Kamala Sridhar and a local staff member, were listening. Within a minute, I started thinking that I’ve never heard 18 or 20 year old “kids” generating ideas like that, never so impressed by their maturity, passion, and focus of people so young.
There was already a donation center at the Student Activities Center one building away, where students were attaching little paper hearts signed by donors to strings going across a black cloth wall, using paper clips (replicating prayer flags at a stupa). Later in the afternoon, as I volunteered for a while, the glass donation jar begin to fill. So did my heart with inspiration. “Oh, yes, I’ve read about it,” said some passers-by as they dropped their donation into the jar and signed the paper hearts. Students from around the world, including local students, often crowded the black cloth wall with colorful paper hearts while taking pictures. “Oh, no. Nepal? Is everyone okay there?” said some folks who hadn’t read about it yet. In response to our call, “Hi, would you like to donate a dollar for survivors of a disastrous earthquake in Nepal?” one or two passers-by said, “No, I’m fine”—perhaps not knowing how to say that they didn’t have cash on them!
The students around the table had rallied more than a dozen student organizations (including those that they led). They had sought help from Professor Sridhar to reach out to top-level university officials, organizations working on/in Nepal around New York. They had set up a Facebook group and event page for collaboration and promotion of the project. Some had started their own online fundraising initiatives, with one of them already raising a few thousand dollars. Some had been knocking on doors in the dormitories, others planning to set up a mehandi service desk, and yet others collecting free Nepali food for the big event, creating flyers and tags and pins. The name of their project, launched overnight, was Unite For Nepal.
I learned that these students were not only dancers and singers and artists as well, many also majored in challenging fields like science, technology, and medicine. The timing is just two weeks before the end of the spring semester, and, evidently, they hadn’t been sleeping much as they juggled their research and papers and exams and all the organizational work they were doing. Toward the end of the hour, some headed to labs, perhaps for work or study. Some, I found out later, worked on campus, others commuted long distances to this university town, sixty plus miles east from New York City.
What is it that brings these students together? I wondered. Most of those who are involved in the ambitious project are not of Nepali background, but they are no less committed than their Nepali counterparts!! Their parents haven’t been hurt in the earthquake, and they haven’t seen disasters and misery. Compassion perhaps. To use knowledge. To make a positive difference.
During the next hour, these young global citizens developed and took notes, creating a long list of action plans, mainly for the cultural event—including a variety of dance performances and speeches and other events, which was to occur nine days after the disaster in Nepal—using a cloud document. They checked a few items as “set” then and there (adding an exclamation mark).
At the next strategy meeting in two more days, the group discussed more concrete plans for the big event, also sharing a great deal of information about the unfolding situation in Nepal. Alongside extremely smart ideas about how to spread the impact of the donations raised within a week to follow, they often offered slightly too ambitious plans, making me wonder if I should point out the problem (but I didn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm). My heart regularly melted with inspiration.
As I write this essay, I pause to reply to questions on the Facebook page where plans are being finalized for the big event. They’ve asked me to speak, and I want to take just a minute or two between the dances they’ve prepared to perform. I know what I want to say. I just need to practice not to cry.
Words that a friend said on the phone from Kathmandu simultaneously spur and frighten me. “Sir, I am afraid to walk.” Walk?! Indeed. The thing we do to run away from danger. Forget about running.
But as the last surviving souls are being taken out of the rubble back home, as I start watching videos about relief reaches further away from the cities, as mixed emotions are running high on the network, and as positive and negative energies clash against each other both at home and among the thousands of Nepalis and our supporters around the world, I also start thinking about the implications of these global citizens’ work in universities like mine. As an educator, looking at the fire-ball excitement these students show, their ability to inspire others, I start thinking about what this means in the big picture of higher education.
Here and everywhere, these young people will shape the world’s future. How will we shape theirs as educators? What are the educational implications of the high-impact global engagement activities by students at universities on the other side of the world? What does it mean that second generation Nepali youngsters, students from around the world, and even more students from other backgrounds, come together and act in favor of a society that is so far away? It is clear to me that these students essentially broaden the meaning and diversify the function of education. But how can I, their educator, use this inspiration to rethink and help to update the framework and processes of education?
How can I myself be a better citizen of the world? In the face of world events like this, where local efforts will not be sufficient, how can more people in more places and generations and professions—most of whom are necessarily and habitually attuned to thinking in only terms of national and cultural boundaries—learn to use knowledge and other resources to make the greatest impact, whenever, wherever humanity needs it most?