Many of us think about changing the world. As a freshman, I didn’t know how I wanted to change the world. I had no long-term plan. For me, it was just a bit of luck. During my freshman year, my commuter assistant sent me an email one night telling me to apply to Alternative Breaks. Every year, NYU AB sends 200 students to do service in places like Los Angeles, Joplin, Thailand and Morocco. As an individual without any sense of community, I made a might as well decision to sign up. Little did I realize the implications of this decision. Today, I have the privilege of serving as logistics chair on the AB board. More importantly, I have a thousand stories to cherish for a lifetime.
During my first year, I went to Stone Mountain, Ga., to work with refugee students. Our group embodied kaleidoscopic diversity, and thus we respected the storied past of the Deep South. Given this, we were blown away by the warm hospitality with which we were received. Still, we had doubt.
On the trek back to NYU, we stopped at a gas station. The doors of the cars were wide open as we hustled in and out. Someone spotted a Caucasian man eyeing our car. He was incessantly stalking us. Yes, we judged him as a potential threat. But we continued our conversations.
Suddenly, the man was at our car. His arms were over the open door as he peered inside. “I saw your friend there picking up stones,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out. He presented us with an Amherst rock. The Caucasian man worked in an Amherst mine and couldn’t resist walking over to give us the invaluable stone. The face of the South’s past had confronted us. It smacked me in the head. After a week full of smiles, we had judged this man as a threat before any words even left his mouth. We judged him because he was white, because of his appearance. That was a sobering moment.
We can have endless conversations about the problems that plague society and about bridging the gap between dreams and reality. But it takes courage to commit to your conviction. If we expect to eradicate problems like racism, we must be aware of how we partake in them. If as a South Asian Sikh, I expect not to be judged as a terrorist, then by no logic do I have the freedom to judge a Caucasian man, even in the South. Both he and I should have the opportunity to present our individuality before being judged. AB not only taught me this, but it has also given me opportunities to practice it. Today, I realize the world has changed. I didn’t have a long-term plan. But now I do.
AB transformed me from an unaware member of society to someone conscious of social justice problems. It changed me; thus, the world changed. I am part of its problems and hopefully part of its solutions. Now I am one more person who can recognize social injustice. By recognizing it, there is hope of rectifying it. Thank you, AB, for transforming me into a person I never planned to be. In no way did I deserve or expect to share these experiences. I am not exceptionally smart or passionate. However, I am grateful for that late night email and the experiences that followed.
Amritpal Singh Bharth is a contributing columnist. Email him at email@example.com.