What is the mission of the SIPA South Asia Association?

To initiate and then engender meaningful conversations woven around shared values and culture of the South Asian communities. Overall, we seek to create a deeper and inclusive understanding of the South Asian region by fostering an exchange of ideas, opinions, knowledge of cultural sensibilities among the student community at SIPA and beyond. Concretely, we try to capture the interests of the student community and, with the benefit of an institution and network, amplify them. This means bringing in members of the scholarly, policy, and business community to interact, but it also means highlighting what students already work on. SIPA is a professional school, and students should be given a platform to showcase their work and collaborate. SAA’s mission would be more than validated if a new fund, startup, technology, or even political consensus emerged from something that we helped to facilitate.

Discuss the event, “Gender-based Violence in Pakistan”, in which you were featured as a moderator.  (Answered by Ahmad Jamal Wattoo, MPA’21)

In October 2020, with six friends at Columbia SIPA, I founded an NGO called ‘Sarparast’ which aims to combat gender-based violence (GBV) in Pakistan by connecting survivors of GBV to vital mental health sources, and raising awareness about GBV on social media. We also represented Sarparast at the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge and successfully made it to the Semi-finals of the competition, winning an award of $3,000.

In order to begin raising awareness about GBV both in the US and in Pakistan, we organized a panel discussion during the ’16 days of activism against gender-based violence’, an annual event which takes place from 25th November to 10th December. For the discussion, we invited founders of prominent NGOs working for women’s empowerment, and also social media activists who raise their voices against all kinds of GBV.  Working as a moderator for the event, I asked the panelists to explore how citizens could precipitate change by reducing incidents of GBV and thus making the world a safer and more prosperous place for everyone. I am thankful to Samir, the President of SAA for collaborating with us on the event and allowing it to reach a large global audience.

What other events does this organization host? Are there any annual events?

The Diwali celebration is the traditional, annual event! It’s an umbrella event for the myriad festivals that are marked in the Fall throughout the subcontinent. More seriously, SAA aims to put on events that serve the intellectual, professional, and social interests of the South Asia-interested student community. There is a constant stream of speaker discussions and panel events with scholars, political figures, and more, from the subcontinent–this can consist of book talks, organization showcases, or briefings on the issues of the day (such as the state of protests in India). Last year, SAA hosted or cosponsored events with three current or former Indian government officials, a scholar of international security in the subcontinent, and the founder of the 1947 Partition Archive. It also hosted an open discussion and listening session on emerging citizenship protests in India. In the past, SAA has cosponsored large conferences, such as one on the future of technology in India, and it will do so again, but its focus is broader now. SAA takes a view to organize programming that suits the needs of the student body at the time, and is concerned with South Asia broadly. The student community at SIPA is concerned not only with affairs of the states in the region, but also with the societies. Issues of inclusion, representation, and social movements are increasingly being addressed by our student groups, and SAA is no exception. The event described above is an illustration of this trend.

Are there networking opportunities for students of South Asian descent across Columbia University? 

There are numerous opportunities through a variety of organizations. SAA serves the student community at SIPA in particular, which finds ways to network organically as well. SAA provides a platform for those who are otherwise not connected, or those seeking a stronger basis for that connection. This can take the form of professional networking events, or informal “chai and chats,” where students can participate in an open discussion space. The alternative, particularly under the COVID-19 pandemic, is a host of WhatsApp groups, which can be useful but in the long run can create as many divisions as connections. At Columbia University more broadly, each professional school has its counterpart to SAA, and the undergraduates have a thriving set of country-specific networks. These organizations all talk to each other, and on occasion can collaborate.

How can prospective students learn more about this organization?

They should feel free to reach out by emailing the Admissions team. They can connect you to us. Beyond the organization itself, we can direct them to resources and students that can enhance the SIPA experience. It’s never too early to reach out!