Earlier this week, I had the immense honor of speaking at a celebration for Diwali and Navratri hosted by UK’s Indian Student Association. I was humbled to be a part of a community with such a compelling vision for inclusion and belonging.
So often, we think about a college campus as a place where students come to learn and to grow, and that’s certainly true.
But, at the same time, I find delight in learning from our own students, in hearing their experiences and wisdom, and exploring the ways in which this community has impacted them.
And, when we come together at events such as this, we all learn. We all grow.
Diwali, or Dipawali, is India’s most important holiday of the year. It is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and many other groups, and it is known as the Festival of Lights.
I’ve learned that the festival’s name stems from the row, or “avail” of clay lamps, or “deepa” that symbolizes an inward light protecting from spiritual darkness.
And, in honor of this protection, many people light these lamps outside of their homes – a captivating reminder of the necessary but stark contrast between light and dark.
We also celebrated Navratri, one of the most significant festivals of India celebrated across the world, honoring the god Durga. The word “Navratri” is derived from two Sanskrit words – “nava” meaning nine and “ratri” meaning night.
The festival celebrates good over evil – a compelling parallel to light over darkness.
And, in the spirit of celebration, this year we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of integration at the University of Kentucky. Lyman T. Johnson, the first African American student at UK, often said that he felt he lived half of his life in the darkness and half of it in the light.
After fighting tooth and nail to gain entrance into the University of Kentucky, he used his education to infuse light into the lives of all he encountered.
And, indeed, it is our responsibility, as the University for Kentucky, to empower our students to do the same.
His story – and the celebration of Diwali and Navratri – are reminders that we are called to inspire our entire community; to not only to actively pursue the good in the world, but to be it.
As we know, the years that one spends on a college campus are unlike any other. These are years in which students might be joining an incredibly diverse community for the first time. And, at first, they might not know what it means to feel supported, like they belong.
That’s why I encourage our students to use this idea as their compass: we are here to infuse light into the lives of others.
This is a place where different ideas and beliefs can be shaped, challenged and celebrated. It is a place where we can—and should be proud to—unveil our authentic selves with empathy, grace, and civility.
We strive to make our campus a place where people feel an unshakeable sense of belonging. That’s why it’s critical to celebrate occasions such as these.
The Office for Institutional Diversity is firm in its belief that building a community of belonging and support is a journey, not a project.
On Tuesday, it was evident that the path we’re on is one of hope, enriching the lives of all who join. And even when it seems dark, our students – our community – will prevail. They will carry the light.