Indian Subcontinent Student Association provides community through culture, service

Sara Shalwani and Neha Virani discuss future plans for the Indian Subcontinent Student Association. Olivia Havre | Photographer

By Samantha Garza | Staff Writer

Through acts of service and cultural sharing, the Indian Subcontinent Student Association (ISSA) strives to provide community for students of the Indian subcontinent.

Dallas senior and ISSA president Sara Shalwani said the organization’s main purpose is to gather all South Asian students on campus. She said the organization has close to 100 members.

“We are a minority,” Shalwani said. “So sometimes it’s hard to feel at home. Our purpose is to connect all those students and bring our culture onto campus, and we do that through events like Holi and Gateway to India.”

Shalwani said she joined ISSA her freshman year because she was looking for a community she could identify with and relate to. She said she wanted to find people who shared her same background and mentality.

“I joined [ISSA] to find a good group of friends, which I did end up doing,” Shalwani said. “My friend group extended, and I became friends with the entire organization.”

Shalwani also said when she was a freshman, a lot of people were hesitant to join the organization.

“Maybe because of stereotypes or things like that, they thought it was weird to express their culture openly in a predominantly white campus,” Shalwani said.

Shalwani said that although the number of people in the organization has diminished exponentially in recent years, a lot of people have become more comfortable with expressing their culture.

Houston senior and ISSA vice president Neha Virani said she joined ISSA her freshman year because she already knew people who were part of the organization and the events interested her. Throughout her Baylor journey, Virani said ISSA helped her find a group of lifelong friends and roommates.

“It’s given me a lot of connections, and it’s been a lot of fun to be able to go to so many events and plan so many of them as well,” Virani said.

The organization has a big/little reveal — similar to those of sororities — in which current members are paired with new members and become mentors and friends. Virani said this program has helped a lot of the members become close with one another.

“If you think about it, people from different classifications don’t really talk as much, but through the big/little program, we’ve had a lot of mentoring happen,” Shalwani said. “It’s a good opportunity not only to meet people in the club in general, but some of the aspects of the club help bring people together who would normally not talk.”

As ISSA president, Shalwani said she wants to help new and current members stay in touch with their culture and roots. She also said she wants to make the organization a safe space at Baylor where people are free to express their culture.

Every year, the organization plans events like the ISSA pool party, the Halloween lock-in and a s’mores and game night, providing students with opportunities to become close with other members.

“I just want to spice things up and provide new ways and experiences for people so that they get to know each other,” Shalwani said.

According to Shalwani, one of the biggest events the organization participates in every year is the Gateway to India dance competition — a cultural showcase in which dance teams from different parts of Texas and out-of-state schools compete against each other in front of a panel of judges.

“It is a great way to express and show off our culture to the rest of Baylor,” Shalwani said. “It’s a fun way for people to come, dress up … Even the dancing is Bollywood and hip-hop fusion, so it’s the best of both worlds.”

To keep a level of authenticity, Virani said executive members try to serve traditional Indian food at their events and meetings. Aside from hosting events, ISSA also practices drawing traditional henna tattoos.

“It’s a lot of fun for our members,” Virani said. “You get to see the fun part of our culture like dressing up, having nice henna tattoos and Indian jewelry.”

Shalwani said ISSA is open to anyone who is interested in joining or simply in learning a little bit more about a different culture.