By: Shayori Romi Pal
Over the past few years, South Asians and South Asian Americans have been gaining more and more recognition. Whether you are reading the news or scrolling through social media, people like Priyanka Chopra, Hasan Minhaj, Kamala Harris, and Nikki Haley are the main focus of everyone’s attention. Despite being aware of their accomplishments, I believed that the lives they were living were unattainable. It seemed as if they took risks without any fear or vulnerability, and that did not apply to me or my life. However, that sense of struggle quickly disappeared after I became involved in the New Jersey Leadership Program. This summer, I have had the privilege to witness South Asian Americans like myself make strides in the world of politics and government. Although I am an undergraduate student nearing the end of college, I believe that NJLP has opened multiple doors for me to success. This is just the beginning.
Interning at the Department of the Treasury at the Office of the Governor this summer has been quite a learning experience. Having done previous internships relating to international development and immigration, I was unsure as to what my duties would be or what kinds of tasks I would be involved in. To my surprise, I found out that the work that I do is not solely confined to economic policy. Creating a presentation detailing the Trenton250 Master Plan, an initiative dedicated to improving the city of Trenton socioeconomically and politically by 2042, was one of my favorite activities at the Treasury. Conducting research on the New Jersey Business Plus Survey, and collecting information on how neighboring states supported minority and women-owned businesses gave me insight into the diversity of the United States economy. I even helped write a press release!
The Treasury is not the only place where I am able to gain valuable knowledge. Throughout the speakership series, I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with distinguished individuals who were once just like me, thinking about the future. Now, they are esteemed professionals succeeding in their respective fields. This week, my fellows and I heard from Nadia Hussain, who works at Moms Rising and is the founder of the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative (BAWDI). Ms. Hussain was able to speak candidly about supporting single mothers and children who are incarcerated in the United States. Being one of the few minorities living in a majority-white town after the 2016 presidential election did not hold her back, but pushed her to become part of her local economic council. As the founder of BAWDI, Ms. Hussain was able to create a network of Bangladeshi women to empower one another and tackle issues such as housing, healthcare, and education. We especially enjoyed hearing about how she started a Bengali 101 foreign language class at Rutgers University that still exists today.
Our next speaker was Amol Sinha, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey (ACLU-NJ). We discussed with him the ACLU’s role in defending free speech regardless of political leanings. In light of the recent rise of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, there is a question of whether or not there should be a cut back in the protection afforded to speech that expresses hatred, advocates violence, or otherwise undermines equality. It was concluded that it is difficult to find a solution to this ongoing issue, but it definitely needs more awareness.
The next panel of speakers allowed us to think about the significance of diversity and youth involvement. Raj Parikh, Sharmila Jaipersaud, and Ehsan Chowdhry praised Governor Phil Murphy in inviting many people of cultural backgrounds, including South Asians, to be a part of his transition team. They emphasized the importance of creating personal relationships with people throughout our career paths and having a mentor guide us through the obstacles of working life. Ms. Jaipersaud encouraged South Asian women, in particular, to pitch forward and go out of the way to introduce themselves to complete strangers at networking events. Unfortunately, the women in our community are often branded as shy or quiet, and Ms. Jaipersaud is keen on having the next generation break this stereotype. Hearing the story of how Mr. Parikh’s children had a lemonade stand to raise money for the current family separation crisis gave me hope. No matter how young or how old you are, anyone can make a difference.
For the final panel, we were introduced to Sabeen Masih and Sonia Das, who work at competing lobbying firms of Advocacy Management Group(AMG) and Capital Impact Group(CIG). It was interesting to see how the firms that they work at have opposing views on a certain bill, but they shared the same opinion about it. Many of their clients consist of, but are not limited to, different businesses such as Girls Scouts of America and AAA. We wrapped up our last speakership series with an awesome group photo, and proceeded to work on the capstone project.
When I started college, I had a particular mindset as to what kind of a job I will have after I graduate. However, as NJLP and my internship slowly draw to a close, it dawned on me that whatever career path I choose to start with will not necessarily be the same as what I end with. A recurring theme throughout the speakership series is that it is perfectly acceptable to be dynamic. Maybe I will be a foreign service officer one day. Or a policy advisor. Or a legislative analyst. Or perhaps all three, the possibilities are endless. I have learned that trying out new opportunities completely unrelated to your major or what you are studying can be a blessing in disguise. Seeing people who look like me work on issues that affect our lives everyday has led me to go out of my comfort zone. From civil liberties, to women’s rights, to government affairs, the speakers who took the time to guide us work incredibly hard to move their lives forward. Through their candor and authenticity, they have become role models for South Asian youth like me. Someday, I hope to inspire others as they have inspired me.