« Back to selected speeches and commentary

Ugadi Celebration

April 20, 2013
Hindu Center of Virginia

I’m so thankful to Ananda Pandurangi for that introduction and for being such a great chair of Inpatient Psychiatry at VCU. And Ravi Boregowda for his leadership of RKS. He’s also an important staff member at VCU Health System.

Happy Ugadi. May this Ugadi bring you new spirit, new beginning and new prosperity.

Because Ugadi is traditionally spent with families, I’m pleased that mine has joined me here tonight. Please say hello to my wife Monica, who is originally from Bangalore, and my sons.

My grandmother was from Mangalore, in Karnataka.

I feel like all of you are family, too. Besides being so close-knit, the Indian community in Central Virginia is one of the largest in the U.S., and is significant economically and culturally, as evidenced by this beautiful facility.

The Indian community here is really a microcosm of the U.S. There are now 3 million Indians in the U.S., and that number is growing. Immigration from India to the U.S. is at its highest level in history. The population of Indians in the U.S. grew 106 percent in the last decade, while the overall U.S. population growth was 7 percent.

We are also an influential community. Did you know that Indians attain the highest educational levels of any ethnic group in U.S.? About 67 percent of us have a bachelor’s degree, compared to the national average of 28 percent. About 40 percent of us have an advanced degree, which is five times higher than national average. Those numbers are likely to grow, too, since there are more than 100,000 Indian students studying at U.S. universities, representing the largest group of international students in the U.S. every year for more than a decade.

It’s not surprising, then, that Indians also have the highest household income of any ethnic group in the U.S. Fully 66 percent are employed in professional and managerial specialties, compared to the national average of 36 percent. On the world stage, India may be the largest economy by 2050.

We should all be proud of contributions of the Indian people to American culture as we enter what’s really our second generation here. Our kids are doing well in school, and we are hard-working people. America is a better, stronger nation because of contributions of its Indian population — a large, well-educated, financially stable and very dedicated community.

However, we’re missing something. We don’t show up enough in public policy discussions about the future of human beings.

The wisdom of the Indian culture is based on an interest in other people, insights and selflessness. Those three things have helped others shape American society, and we must use them too. Remember that Bal Gangadhar Tilak said: “We spend our days waiting for the ideal path to appear, but what we forget is that paths are made by walking, not waiting.”

Permit me to give you two examples of walking, not waiting.

One is VCU’s India Chair in Democracy and Civil Society, a $1.1 million campaign that is the first of its kind in the U.S. We have support from India’s Ambassador to the U.S., Nirupama Rao. The chair will really focus on economic, cultural development and will provide our students, the next generation of leaders in our world, with broader picture of India. The scholar who ultimately holds this chair will lead the discussion about democracy; bring experts on Indian art, culture, history, politics, economics and business relations to Richmond. It is a chance to help the Indian community shape public policy in America.

I applaud the chair of our Wilder School, Niraj Verma, for his efforts in bringing the India Chair to fruition.

The second example of walking, not waiting, is our friend Ranjit Sen, who passed away recently. Ranjit, you may know, came to Richmond in the 1960s, learned the city, became an entrepreneur, and was very involved as civic leader. He became part of greater community, he influenced it and he founded this center. Ranjit was a model of success and engagement, and he had a strong civic spirit. We miss him, and Richmond misses him. Ranjit lived the American Dream.

What’s great about Ranjit’s America, our America, is that everyone can contribute to it. There is an opportunity to use who we are and where we came from to influence American society. But people’s interest in shaping this nation is, sadly, beginning to erode, especially among the younger generation.

We’ve all seen repeated research that says Americans are behind the rest of the democratic world in civic engagement, social responsibility and political participation. One of those studies even predicted that U.S. would no longer be superpower just 15 years from now.

We have to reverse this. We have to engage in public policy discussions that will help shape our nation.

There is an opportunity for the Indian community to contribute much: work ethic, intelligence, a culture of wisdom and inclusion. Despite the erosion of cultural participation, one thing is still true: Parents are still encouraging children to be successful. What we have to understand, though, is that there are more than a few ways to do this.

My father died when he was 30. He wanted me to be a doctor like he was. My mother, however, always told me “Michael, I don’t care what you do. Just be really good at it because you love it.”

Instead of becoming a doctor, I became president of a university that educates hundreds of doctors every year. I have the opportunity to influence and inspire VCU as one of the nation’s great research universities with a fundamental, practical value — to create opportunities for other people.

That’s important because we know how much even a single innovation can change society.

Becoming a university president was one of two important choices in my life. The other was a job that I didn’t take.

When I was young, I had the chance to leave my job in higher education and go to work for an insurance company in California. It would have nearly tripled my salary. But I declined because I wanted to engage the community and focus on making a difference for other people.

In ways, the life I chose was more difficult, but it’s much more satisfying because it gives me the chance to make more of a difference.

Think about this in the Ugadi new year: How can you use your position to be an advocate, leader and shape not only your lives but society? And how can your colleagues in the Indian community, including me, be a resource?

Thank you. Happy Ugadi.