SAYI 2024: Supporting Young South Asian Minds Through Community-Building

Picture Courtesy of South Asian Youth Institute

Last month, the largest South Asian collegiate conference in North America brought hundreds of South Asian youths to New Haven, Connecticut. From February 9th to February 11th, over 500 people congregated on Yale’s campus for a weekend of panels and other events, including a gala and food workshop. The attendees represented over 30 colleges. The formidable line-up of speakers ranged from award-winning filmmaker Vibha Bakshi and actress Avantika to UN Chief of Global Economic Moderating Hamid Rashid. Members of the South Asian Youth Initiative — the organizing force behind the conference — while cognizant of their conference’s unique standing among college conferences, said that they wanted to do something different.

“There are so many panels and so many conferences like us,” said Nikita Paudal, SAYI’s Head Panel Curator. “And we don’t want to do the same thing. We don’t want to [ask] the same questions.”

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This desire led the organizers — including co-directors Keya Gupta and Daliya Habibto the 2024 conference theme “Broadening Belonging.” The phrase itself was intensively productive; it was something that panelists and speakers grappled with all weekend, whether explicitly or implicitly. “What does belonging in the diaspora look like?” One panelist asked. In Avantika’s fireside chat, she and SAYI board members spoke about portraying South Asian joy in media — a broadening of expression in the roles typically afforded to South Asians. In the “Collective Action” and titular “Broadening Belonging” panels, some speakers discussed feeling alienated from South Asian spaces due to stigmas and stereotypes. However, Rashid’s keynote speech, the conference’s first event, perhaps offered the most illuminating look at the significance of “Broadening Belonging” for the conference’s attendees.

“I’m glad you’re all here together,” Rashid said during his address, referencing the diversity of the South Asian attendees. “But this isn’t like how South Asia is.”

A brief scan of headlines can inform anyone of the tensions between India and Pakistan, the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan, and more. At the SAYI conference, South Asian diaspora had the chance to gather and learn from one another in a way that isn’t always possible in their homelands. They were able to broaden their understandings of what it means to be South Asian and issues that face South Asian communities, and conceptualize how to address these issues as a larger community. Shaina Zafar, the co-founder of JUV Consulting and a speaker on the “Founders Who Spark Change” panel, said that the conference provided a way “to be in community with other brown folks.”

“I think it’s [hard] to find spaces and places that are amplifying your identity or lived experiences, so to be in a moment like this, it feels really intentional and it’s also agnostic to where you are in your life stage,” Zafar said. “People want to feel in community with other people that think like them, that look like them, that can even challenge them in a way that feels a lot more comfortable, and I think that this is the type of conference that makes space for that.”

This feeling of community remained a huge draw for the conference among attendees. One woman, a student completing her Masters in Economics at Yale, had thesis planning and multiple problem sets due in the upcoming week but she still came to hear Rashid speak because she was excited to hear from a Bangladeshi speaker. Another woman who had gone to one of SAYI’s conferences while in college came to listen to the panelists even though she had graduated. It had been such a good experience last time she came, she said, that she wanted to come again to meet more of the attendees.

“I think it’s just really cool that we as college students get to experience a conference of this magnitude where people who look like us and who have lived our experiences, we get to see how they got to where they are,” Roshan Parikh, President of the South Asian Students Association at Brown University, said. “…It makes you feel a lot more connected to the South Asian community as a whole; like as a community you can always turn to if you need anything.”

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Parikh said he appreciated the broad range of panelists across industries and disciplines at SAYI’s conference — a sentiment many other attendees echoed. The attendees were able to enjoy a diverse array of speakers because the SAYI board deliberately sought to make this a reality for the conference. According to Gupta, the SAYI board directed their efforts toward ensuring that attendees would leave the conference with something more than they came in with. The end product was a conference that Gupta and the board felt immensely proud of. Habib called the conference a “celebration” while Gupta compared its festivities and size to that of a wedding’s. Adding to the board’s euphoria at pulling off a successful conference is the fact that they managed to carry it out despite a lack of past infrastructure due to COVID-19 — and that they’ve taken steps to ensure SAYI’s continuation into the next year.

The first iteration of the SAYI conference was held in 2003. The conference became an annual tradition at Yale until the pandemic forced its cancellation one year and turned it into a digital conference the next. In 2023, the conference returned to Yale’s campus, but the 2024 conference still felt COVID-19’s effects. “Institutional knowledge” about running and holding an event of the conference’s magnitude was lost.

“I came into this role really not knowing what to do because there was no bank account, there was no budgeting system, and this is an insane conference, our budgeting system is in the tens of thousands, and we’re starting from ground zero,” SAYI treasurer Uma Bery said.

She said working with Dwight Hall at Yale, SAYI was able to file for a 501(c) status. Institutionalizing the conference, Gupta said, is a huge priority for the board because they want to ensure the conference’s continued longevity.

“We are so proud of what we made, and we don’t want that to go away,” Paudal said. “Reinventing the wheel every time is not sustainable. Our biggest thing is we want to leave this as a legacy for those who come after us…that means having that institutional memory.”

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By Surina Venkat

Surina Venkat is writer for Brown Girl Magazine's Youth Vertical. She currently lives in West Melbourne, Florida, where she can … Read more ›