“Technically I didn’t really know how to say my name properly until this year,” Sarika Kumar, BC ’16, says, “and that’s because I started taking Punjabi.” She had always gone by her nickname “Saru” at home and at school. Growing up her name was usually further mispronounced. As the youngest child of immigrants from Punjab, Sarika was raised in Long Island in what she describes as “a really white neighborhood and never felt being comfortable with the white crowd [or] brown crowd, so I always falling in this weird, liminal space.”
Feeling in between didn’t mitigate the impact of her experiences with racism. Sarika recalls an episode in high school, in which a white woman harassed her and her mother in a Rite Aid parking lot—telling them “You don’t belong here” and “Get out of this country.” “Things like that, those are things you share, they don’t just stop with your parents—that becomes part of my understanding of my family history and of who I am. I think a lot of what I do on campus is charged from those types of experiences.”
She is the former co-president and current senior advisor of Columbia University Sewa, a Sikh advocacy organization primarily focused on social justice and practicing Sikh values like “selfless service” (the meaning of the word sewa). Last May, she co-founded South Asian Feminist Alliance which recently received official recognition by the Governing Board at Barnard. This process, says Sarika, was not without its challenges. “You have this idea like ’South Asian Feminist Alliance,’ but like, what the hell does that mean? How do you start shaping a community?” The alliance tries to form dialogue around issues such as “sexual assault in the South Asian community, what rape culture means in Bollywood.”
This question of community pertains to her academic pursuits as well. The urban studies and environmental science double major is currently in the middle of her thesis looking at post-Hurricane
Sandy development and redevelopment issues in Far Rockaway. According to Sarika, a significant part of her research consists of the idea of “resilience” within the waterfront Queens community.
“In an engineering/biological sense, it’s literally bouncing back from a disturbance in the system—getting back to base level. But then in terms of social resilience, it’s more about transformation, so not just bouncing back but thriving.” We return to this theme of the “discord between the hard sciences and how science talks about the humanities and vice versa” when she admits she had an “existential crisis” after spending a summer studying habitats and lemurs in Madagascar. She came back and took a course on Madagascar anthropology in which she learned how, as her professor put it, “Conservation kills people.”
When not attending to conceptual quandaries, Sarika has a light-hearted side as well. On Soundcloud, she is known as DJ Saru Kaur. Though it was an April Fool’s joke (Sarika says she tries to do one every year) people still believe the mixtape, made of 22 tracks, each just the same mix of a video she found on YouTube, is a genuine foray into making music. There are now over 100 plays of a couple songs on the album. “It’s pretty good for something that isn’t real—at all,” she says laughing.