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‘Someone who looks like us': The Harris nomination and new possibilities for South Asian Americans

A student, pushing back against cultural expectations, sees inspiration in the vice presidential candidate.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris has drawn attention to the role of South Asian Americans in public service.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris has drawn attention to the role of South Asian Americans in public service.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Before Kamala Harris took the podium at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, she was heralded in a video introduction as “someone who looks like us on a presidential ticket.” The phrase rang especially true for South Asian Americans like me, who could connect with the vice presidential nominee’s story of a beloved mother who immigrated from India at the age of 19 and raised her daughters to be proud of who they are.

But for many in my community, Harris’s ascension is not just a matter of representation. It is a matter of myth-busting. It says that South Asian Americans — who have long been pigeonholed as cab drivers and software engineers and medical professionals — can be public servants, too. Can shape our democracy in important ways. That is an especially gratifying message for me.

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Growing up in Ridgewood, N.J., my small cluster of South Asian American peers were mostly interested in pursuing STEM-related careers. When I enrolled in a humanities-specific program my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher told me I was one of the few South Asian American students who had done so in memory.

Little surprise then, that, over the next three years, classmates of all races and ethnicities who didn’t know the choice I’d made asked repeatedly if I was pursuing the school’s pre-medical track. Once, in the narrow hallways of my school, a fellow humanities student — someone who sat a few desks away when we were in class — asked the same question. I blinked in surprise, stunned as I answered in the negative.

As I made my way through school, I grew more and more convinced that I wanted to pursue public service. And while I was firm in my commitment, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of cultural expectations.

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At family gatherings, where one can expect a deluge of questions from curious South Asian aunties and uncles, I was continually probed about my career interests: Had I really thought this through? Had I heard about the daughter’s friend’s brother who forayed into public service and repented, wishing instead that he had pursued medicine? The tacit assumption was that public service is a subordinate field, demanding less rigor than the sciences, while bearing less fruit.

Once I arrived at Harvard in 2019, I came across a fledgling campus organization called South Asian Americans in Public Service, and quickly got involved. That the group existed at all came as a surprise to me — I had expected those of my kind to be such a minority that any attempt at organizing would be futile.

I soon discovered that my aspirations were not as unusual as I had imagined. The students I met through the organization had navigated many of the same stereotypes and inhibiting conventions I had faced. They too had come from places where few public officials hailed from their background. Aman Panjwani and Meena Venkataramanan, my two upperclassmen friends who had co-founded the organization just two years prior, had recognized the need to bring like-minded individuals together and push back against the usual expectations.

Together, our group organized discussions with prominent public servants of South Asian descent and coordinated initiatives to promote community engagement. Our speakers — including former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former US attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, and Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai — joined us in small student spaces across campus. A strong social media presence soon brought news of our work to other campuses.

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Over the course of a few months, the initiative swelled from a small collection of Harvard students to a coalition spanning all four US time zones. A host of initiatives — including a journal, a fellowship, and a voting campaign — nourished thousands of young political aspirants, who were also drawing inspiration from a wave of prominent South Asian American public servants, such as Harris and Representatives Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal.

When I attended our last event on Harvard’s campus before the pandemic, I had the chance to hear from Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice. An accomplished attorney appointed by President Barack Obama, Gupta has fought for criminal justice reform, voting rights, and housing equality.

Prior to that particular discussion, it had been difficult to imagine myself navigating a realm with very few people of my cultural background. But that day, in the small, theater-lit lecture hall of our student residence building, I saw for the first time a woman in public service who looked like I did.

In March, when COVID-19 pushed us out of our dorms, I found myself back in my hometown. This time, I was imbued with a newfound energy. I no longer felt compelled to justify my career choice. I could proudly espouse it. And I had a swift response to any question the South Asian aunties could lob at me.

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When I saw Harris take the stage Wednesday night, standing in a wreath of white stars against the blue carpet floor, my newfound confidence in my career choice took another leap. Not only was it possible for a South Asian American woman to dream of a life in public service. It was clear that she could reach the pinnacle. In Harris’s vice presidential candidacy, I saw a radiant future.

Swathi Kella is a sophomore at Harvard University and director of programs for the South Asian Americans in Public Service initiative. Follow her on Twitter @swathikella.