For students of any descent, staying connected with their culture can be a difficult aspect of leaving home. Being away from family, friends and, for many, even the country they were born in can cause some to lose touch with important traditions. Some on-campus celebrations of these traditions can help students bring those pieces of home to their life at university.
The Indian Association of Northern Arizona (IANA) is a non-political, on-campus organization formed to bring together and educate students, faculty and community members who are interested in Indian culture. It also provides a space for Indian students and staff to create one community.
On Oct. 28, the IANA hosted a celebration to commemorate the Diwali holiday. Diwali is a traditional Hindu holiday honored throughout India that essentially celebrates the triumph of good over evil, or light within darkness. During the days-long festivities, diyas are displayed among homes to represent different good fortunes, gifts are exchanged and families partake in large feasts.
The evening began with a video from NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera wishing those in attendance a happy Diwali. Cruz Rivera was unable to attend the event in person due to a prior obligation.
“Indian Association of Northern Arizona’s Diwali celebration serves as one of the highlights of the year for everyone in the university community, and it is fantastic to once again welcome everyone to an in-person Diwali celebration," Cruz Rivera said. "On behalf of our Northern Arizona University community, I wish all of you a wonderful and happy Diwali.”
The IANA’s Diwali celebration was filled with festivities that put Indian culture on full display.
Many student-led dance groups performed traditional Indian dances and modern variations of dances from the Bollywood world. Students performed celebratory songs from their home country. The crowd was even treated to a surprise traditional Chinese lion dance from the Sacred Mountain Fighting and Healing Arts Dojo.
The event’s attendees also consumed dishes and desserts associated with Diwali provided by NAU Campus Dining. Many of those in attendance gathered by the photo booth to take pictures with one another. Also featured was a fashion show that showcased the fashion of India. After the event was formally over, many stuck around to participate in group dances.
Among the attendees of the event were many non-Indian students there to share in the celebration of Diwali. Dozens of students and faculty joined in the group dances, took pictures and helped themselves to multiple plates of food. This did not go unnoticed by event organizers like Sanjana Ramesh, the treasurer and secretary of the IANA.
“It’s really a great opportunity to share our culture with Americans just as much as they share their culture with us and I’m grateful for that,” Ramesh said.
Saloni Jain, president of the IANA, reiterated that the event’s purpose was to educate those who may not be familiar with Diwali and the holiday’s traditions.
“That’s the main reason why we did this,” Jain said. “We wanted people to come to this event and know about Diwali, and I think we accomplished that.”
Ximena Licano is not an NAU student but heard about the event from friends. She said she believes it is essential for those not native to a culture to still celebrate the traditions of other cultures.
“I think all cultures are beautiful and have things in them to celebrate,” Licano said. “There’s no one person who’s more worthy of celebrating over another.”
The sentiment of celebrating others was echoed by sophomore Abbe Cooley, who feels that personal faith gives her the belief that celebrating other cultures is important.
“I feel that God made race and race is sacred, so I believe that all races should be celebrated,” Cooley said. “So it’s important for unity’s sake to go out and integrate with other cultures.”
NAU student Abbie Booth also said that as a mostly white university, it is the obligation of other students to make Indian students feel comfortable and as close to home as possible.
“Diwali stands for the victory of light over darkness, and that is one universal theme that is common across all cultures,” IANA vice president Husain Sodawalla said. “We wanted students who are Indian as well as non-Indian — Chinese, Pakistani, Ghanaian, so many of them — we wanted them to take home that we are all one people.”
Sodawalla also expressed how people from other nations can come to the United States without forfeiting the traditions that make their respective cultures unique.
“When people come to this country, they’re bringing their unique flavors, without losing any of it behind, so we have this very interesting, very delicious, very deep taste of people,” Sodawalla said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many travel restrictions prevented international students from going back home to see their families during times when classes were not in session. This made it even more difficult for students who already haven’t been back in their homelands in an extended amount of time. Sodawalla is one of these students; he said that he has not been back in India since 2015.
Sodawalla also referenced how Cruz Rivera doing something as simple as sending a video to wish everyone a happy Diwali shows how NAU has shown its support to Indian and other international students, even during the most troubling times.
“[The pandemic] was a very scary time and a very lonely time, but during that time, the university never left us,” Sodawalla said. “For the president, to take time out of his busy schedule to do a recording like that with such wonderful words, such kind words, it really energizes us — the emotional connect [back home] is always missing, so that’s when the university has come in and they open their arms and just embrace us and our culture.”
Those who are interested in attending future events hosted by IANA can visit the organization’s events page.
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