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Cultivating Cultural Curiosity

I took Monday off to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

This was the first time in my teaching career that there wasn’t a campus community that observed Diwali, which has different meanings for followers of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Diwali is celebrated according to the lunar calendar. It dates to centuries B.C. and for many Hindus marks the return of Lord Rama from his exile. However, in recent years it has taken a more secular meaning, just like Christmas for many American Christians.

At Penn State, where I taught as a graduate student before coming to Lincoln, the Hindu Students Council, the South Asian Students Association and numerous faculty joined in commemorating the event in late October and early November.

At Lincoln, where there are only a handful of South Asian faculty and even fewer students of South Asian descent (those who are tend to be of Caribbean origin), Diwali doesn’t register as a notable event. This is understandable, but I still offer to explain the holiday to curious students and colleagues.

One thing I truly appreciate about Lincoln students is many of them are curious about diverse cultures, particularly since they realize they are heading into a multicultural world far different than their experience at a HBCU. I believe educating students involves more than getting them to excel in the classroom; it’s about making sure they understand just how expansive, complex and multilayered our society is.

When students come into my office they see multiple markers of my identity. One of my students, after noticing the numerous religious artifacts on my wall and on my desk, asked me if I was Muslim. I laughed and told her she wasn’t the first person to ask me that and won’t be the last.

The key was she left with a better understanding of who I was as a Hindu and as a professor vested in her future success.

That was a moment worth lighting a candle for.

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