Rithani Saravanakumar, winner of the 2nd annual essay competition, speaks to The American Bazaar.
In 2020, when the world was dealing with an unexpected, raging pandemic and school children were learning to deal with the new normal of online classes and curriculum, India Philanthropy Alliance, came up with the idea of a Youth Essay Competition. It turned out to be a huge success and after a great reception in the inaugural year. This year, the Alliance was back with the 2021 Youth Essay Competition.
India Philanthropy Alliance, a coalition of charitable organizations, launched the initiative as a medium to channelize and encourage philanthropic ideas among the younger generation of Indian Americans.
Several studies have shown that Indian Americans, though among the most affluent minorities in the United States, are not as generous as typical American households when it comes to charitable causes. The initiative hopes to instill philanthropic spirit among the younger generation of Indian Americans. Encouragingly enough, the organization saw an overwhelming participation from Indian American kids across the country.
After a panel evaluated and judged the essays from high and middle schoolers, the Alliance came out with its list of winners. The winners of the 2021 Youth Essay Competition will be celebrated in an online ceremony on November 10, where they will also get a chance to present their idea.
“These middle and high school youth presented thoughtful, passionate, and well researched ideas for how to address some of the bigger challenges faced by India today,” said Deepak Raj, Chairman of the Alliance. “We are heartened by their enthusiasm and look forward to seeing their continued development.”
Rithani Saravanakumar, of Redmond, Washington, who wrote on the topic “A Farmers’ Predicament: Revolutionizing the Agriculture Industry in India,” is the winner in the high school category. Her essay, touching upon the topic of deregulation of crop prices in India and its impact on the rural farming community, showed a deep understanding of the agrarian society in India. Read Saravanakumar’s essay here.
Saravanakumar, who will receive $1,000, will donate the cash prize to Pratham USA.
The runner-up in the high school category is Diya Patel, who will donate her cash prize of $500 to the Sehgal Foundation. The three finalists in the category are Aniruddh Marella, Jibraan Rahman, Eshwar Venkataswamy.
In the middle school category, the winner is Eisha Yadav. (Read her essay here.) She will donate the prize money of $1,000 to the American Friends of HelpAge India. The runner-up, Chinmayi Joshi, will donate $500 to UNICEF USA. The three finalists in the category are Arhaan Iyer, Eesha Jain, Riya Pharsiyawar.
Soon after the winners were announced, The American Bazaar spoke to Saravanakumar, the winner in the high school category.
As a high schooler living and studying in the US, you displayed an exceptional clarity about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India. Can you tell us about the research you put in?
In the beginning, I had to rely on my prior knowledge of this topic because there wasn’t much I could scavenge from the internet. Luckily, I knew enough to create a baseline. I was well educated about the agribusiness model and the hardships farmers faced because I experienced it firsthand.
Every time we traveled to India, we would visit my grandparents’ farming land where they grew organic vegetables and fruits, and they would describe to me the struggles of the farming class, and how corporate influence dramatically altered their lifestyle. In fact, I was inspired to use agriculture as my essay topic because of my grandparents. To find further detailed information, I had to look through several news articles and research articles about the ongoing farmer’s protest in New Delhi. Because this is a problem that stems from the root of the nation, I had to conduct extensive research about each of the various factors involved in this issue. I read CNN articles, explored the history behind the farmer’s market, and connected everything with our generation’s power to solve this crisis.
Has writing always been a passion for you? Would you recall at what age you began writing and how does it help you as a student and as an individual?
Writing, since I was a child, has always helped me convey my emotions and feelings even when there wasn’t an opportunity for me to do so. From what I can recall, I have been writing since I was in kindergarten, around the age of five. But I never immediately started to write. I was more comfortable with my voice, than with my pen. As a result, speaking and telling other people stories was something that I enjoyed and came naturally to me, so I focused more on verbal communication. As my words grew into sentences, lines formed paragraphs, and ideas constructed essays, I found that I enjoyed writing too.
There was a lot that I could do in writing that I couldn’t with my voice, such as expressing my own ideas. I wasn’t saying what others wanted to hear; I was writing for myself. I believe writing really strengthens a student’s capabilities because when you’re writing, your creativity is the only limit. As a writer, you have no bounds, no limits, and certainly, no rules. This not only makes a confident student, but also a strong individual.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born? How often you visit India? What part of India your parents came from, and how and why do you feel connected to your parents’ homeland?
Even though I am an American resident and citizen, I am originally from South India. I was born in Karur, a small town located in Tamil Nadu, India. I only spent the first 11 months of my life growing up in India.
Then, when my dad received a job offer in the US, my mom and I, along with my dad, moved to Redmond, Washington. And ever since, we’ve stayed in the same, old apartment, for 16 years! Growing up, my parents were very insistent about maintaining our Indian culture and habits. They made sure that my brother and I were taught to fluently speak, read, and write in our mother-tongue, Tamil, and followed religious customs such as visiting the temple weekly and celebrating important Indian festivals. In addition, we would travel to India every two to three years to visit our grandparents, relatives, and cousins. Our trip would usually last the entire summer as we would spend time catching up on what we missed over the past few years. Both of my parents are from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. We regularly visit my parents’ homeland in India because that is where our relatives live. In Chennai, there are a lot of places to sightsee such as beaches, government buildings, temples, and shopping malls!
Frequently, my parents show my brother and I pictures of the place before and after their childhood, and it is shocking to see the rapid transformation of India.
Indian students in the US have earned this reputation of being very academically inclined. As a high schooler do you encounter these perceptions? Are words like geek or nerd often used to describe Indian students or is it only in movies?
Indian students have definitely earned the reputation of being academically inclined, but to be honest, I can’t really answer that question thoroughly because I study at a STEM school where all the classes are based on the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Our school is relatively small as well, so our options are very limited, meaning all of us in the same grade take almost the same classes (with a few exceptions). From other school’s point of view, most people who attend Tesla STEM High School are labeled as “geek” or “nerd” because of the school’s high academic standards and students’ exceptional performance. But yes, Indian students are under the stereotype of being very smart.
Let’s talk about the essay, why did you think of participating and did you think you would win? How do you think it gives an important platform for students like you?
To be honest, I never for a second thought that I would win. I just thought of this competition as another platform and another opportunity to voice my opinions on a topic I’m passionate about. I wanted to address an issue I believed was receiving insufficient attention, to the Indian diaspora community. It is important for students like me to be given a large platform like this essay competition because the future of humanity is in our hands. As cringy as that sounds, it is OUR ideas that are going to reshape the world, and so if our proposals are not acknowledged, then how will we progress? How will we continue to move forward if we keep doing the same things and making the same mistakes?