The PIE: What is your background?
Sudhanshu Kaushik: I was born in Alabama where I pretty much made up the diversity in a very small white Anglo-Saxons town. But at the same time, my parents continued to live in Haryana, which is a very ‘middle of nowhere’ state in India. So I had this interesting aspect of living in America and living in India, not in Delhi and New York, but more so in uncharted kinds of backgrounds.
“At one point we had over 500 students attending our 16 different locations”
I had an upbringing where I was getting a very privileged education in the US, but when I would go to India, there were a variety of issues that I would see minimum access to education.
The PIE: How did you get involved in education?
SK: When I was a freshman in college, I got a few students together and we were able to create this organisation called the Equality Initiative, where we’re trying to provide community-based education in India in three states predominantly: Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.
It was for people looking to improve [their literacy] so they could have more than their daily meagre work. So a person that, let’s say, was a trash picker could transition to working at a shop because they finally understood math.
We were teaching basic math through a local language. For example, in Punjab it would be Punjabi in Haryana it would be Hindi. We did that for about three and a half to four years.
We would hire retired teachers who could teach for two hours a day, cheaply and on a part-time basis. At one point we had over 500 students attending our 16 different locations. That was my first foray into non-profit work that works with education at the same time.
The PIE: Tell me about some of the other work you have done around education.
SK: When I was still studying at NYU, I did my dissertation in youth demographics and started this foundation called the Young India Foundation. Basically, it tries to bring more young people into political participation, and policymaking.
We lead a youth rights movement and have an entire research centre dedicated to bringing about awareness about young people in India. And we’ve done countless reports. We have over 150 members.
We’ve helped about 20 political candidates between the ages of 21 to 25. Five of them have won. So that is one of the biggest successes in my own work right now that I truly take pride in.
The PIE: What led you to start the North American Association of Indian Students?
SK: In India, we are soon to overtake China in terms of how many students we send out abroad to study whether it’s in Australia, the UK, Canada, and the biggest being the US.
“In India, we are soon to overtake China in terms of how many students we send out abroad to study”
There are, in some estimates, upwards of 300,000 Indian students that come any given year to study on a student visa, whether it’s J-1, F-1, M-1 here in the US. So it’s a huge, huge population and that’s not even including Canada.
So there was a huge disconnect that was proven by Covid-19, where neither the Indian government or the US government has a way to really systemically include these people, and represent them. So that’s what really incentivised me to create NAAIS.
The PIE: What are some of the challenges Indian students face in the US?
SK: One of the biggest things is that people generalise that [these students] are all well-off. But that’s far from the case. So trying to build a community to support, give resources, create an infrastructure and then represent these issues.
When you think about it, who is really representing Indian students when they give billions of dollars to the US economy? Who’s representing them at Capitol Hill?
Who is saying “hey, these OPT restrictions, these visa restrictions are absurd”, specifically for Indians when we’re giving you so much. Who’s really representing Indian students besides the universities themselves?
So we want to exist to obviously create that resource, create that infrastructure for community membership, but also to lobby and take part in advocacy and movement building.
‘Who is really representing Indian students when they give billions of dollars to the US economy?”
The PIE: What work does NAAIS do?
SK: We are a pan-umbrella organisation trying to identify, educate and mobilise. So what that means in practice is taking up issues that matter and educating people.
Most of the clubs here and most of the activities deal with Bollywood nights and samosa nights. We want to create safe spaces in all corners of North America – having speakers come in and having topical discussions with our affiliates so people can discuss rather than just absorb.
The PIE: What work is NAAIS doing around Covid-19?
SK: Covid-19 has impacted Indian students to a far greater degree than we realise. People were sleeping hungry, people were literally kicked out of their apartments or universities.
So we provided immediate food relief to these students and were able to really help them come out and be able to assist them legally as well. At the same time, we were able to really assist and help build a community with these students.
We’re only three months old and our membership is now 5,000 student members; we hope to have at least 50,000 by the start of August. Our affiliates are growing exponentially and we’re trying to be in almost every state and across North America.
The PIE: What is the demand like from Indian students in North America for an organisation like NAAIS?
SK: Growing exponentially is an indication of how big of a demand there is, to be able to take part in the community, to actually exist. In terms of the work we do, for the forthcoming elections, we want to incentivise Indian students to go out in their communities to encourage people to vote and in their local languages.
When it comes to post-Covid times, we’re working on an event where we’ll try to explain to Indian students who left [the US] but who were studying here about their healthcare and the access to healthcare that they have here in the US through their university.
So we’re trying to really break that down and be give them that understanding; give them the ability to learn and to provide resources.
The PIE: What are some of the concerns that Indian students might face in the coming months?
SK: Right now it seems like everyone’s rushing to be like, “oh, we’re going to start back up” – you see that happening in all quarters. Universities, many of them have said they can commit to starting back up in the fall because, at the end of the day, the university is an institution and a business.
And they are trying to incentivise people to come to give them their tuition money. There are points of concern that we are looking at and trying to understand.
“Have there been discussion about how they will support students if there is a second wave?”
When it comes to specific university public health systems, has there been discussion about how they will support students if there is a second wave? And if you look at it, I don’t think so.
I’m talking about these universities in the middle of nowhere – are they ready to take this on? I would sadly think they’re not at this point, and no one has been talking about it. But students are still going to risk it.
Are the healthcare systems available to students and as well as the infrastructure itself up to the mandate? I would assume it’s not at this point. That’s something that I think other people need to be exploring.