Several prominent members of the South Asian community, including a famous television news correspondent, a professional actor, the founder of a non-profit organization, college professors and classical and modern musicians came to the University over the weekend to promote cultural awareness and political activism.

Shabina Khatri
Najeeb Jan leads a workshop discussion Saturday while Abheshek Narain and Guru Srinivas listen at the South Asian Awareness Network Conference in the Michigan Union.

The South Asian Awareness Network, a University student organization, presented its inaugural conference titled, “The Continuity of Culture,” Friday through Sunday at the Michigan Union.

The SAAN conference also featured educational workshops, small group discussions, a formal dance, an exhibit by student organizations and networking opportunities with University alumni.

CNN medical correspondent and University alum Sanjay Gupta gave a keynote address on Saturday about the conference’s theme.

LSA junior and conference co-chair Mona Patel said the theme was chosen because of the need to preserve culture.

“Most of us are second-generation South Asians, so we know a lot about our culture but not as much as our parents. Our children will probably know even less, and we’re scared that this culture will be lost,” she said.

A moment of silence was held on Saturday for Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian American to fly in a U.S. space shuttle.

Chawla was one of the seven crew members who died in the Columbia space shuttle explosion. Patel said Chawla had been invited to speak at the conference but was unable to attend because of her NASA activities.

Conference participants were able to choose from 10 different workshops on political, social and cultural issues.

In one workshop, actor Kal Penn, who had a leading role in National Lampoon’s “Van Wilder,” discussed the portrayal of South Asians in the media and his personal difficulties in the entertainment business.

Gupta also spoke at a workshop regarding the AIDS epidemic in South Asian countries.

“I like that he said that if you feel like you can’t make a difference, you can. Spreading awareness among everyone is key,” said Nursing sophomore and small group facilitator Seema Ghelani.

Danyanti Gupta, the first female engineer hired by Ford Motor Co. in 1967, spoke at a workshop that explored the obstacles South Asian women have faced because of stereotypes.

“I thought she provided a lot of inspiring insight for women,” LSA senior and conference co-chair Chethra Muthiah said.

Musicians from Rukus Avenue, the first South Asian label in North America, performed for participants and also spoke at a workshop regarding South Asian classical music.

Another prominent speaker and University alum was Debashish Mishra, the founder of the non-profit organization South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow and the executive director of the Indian Center for Political Awareness.

He led a workshop on hate crimes and also gave a keynote speech in which he urged students to take political action.

Business junior Jayanth Surakanti, who served as a small group facilitator for the conference, said he was excited to see so many prominent South Asian media figures making appearances.

“But it wasn’t just the celebrity,” Surakanti added. “They were basically saying, ‘We’ve done these things and you guys can do the same.'”

Surakanti noted that many of the speakers have become successful in fields where South Asians are underrepresented in non-traditional career paths.

“They’re breaking into acting, music and even cheerleading. They’ve opened up a lot of options for the South Asian community,” he added.

LSA senior Chethra Muthiah, one of the conference’s co-chairs, said about 180 people registered for the conference.

Muthiah added that the conference exceeded her expectations.

“It was a really positive and refreshing reflection of the South Asian community on this campus,” Muthiah said.

“We definitely achieved the goal of reaching the community with awareness of South Asian activism,” Patel said.

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