By: Dionne Smith, Community Editor
The USM Multicultural Center is home to many students that use the space as an area to meet people who are like them, socialize and connect with each other. USM is continuously growing more diverse. People of different characters and backgrounds are mixing on campus every day and it’s good to have a space where students feel they fit in. Anila Karunakar, coordinator for Multicultural Student Affairs, fits in with the students in that regard.
Karunakar is Indian, though she never lived in India. She grew up in the small country of Bahrain in the middle east, in which her family lived very humbly. Karunakar describes Bahrain as being very diverse in terms of religion thanks to Bahrain having religious freedom. Karunakar described the freedom as people being able to walk the streets without fear while holding a religious book or practicing their religion.
After high school, she ended up in Iowa, which she described as being a big culture shock for her at first and attended Northwestern College,majoring in education.In Bahrain, there is so much diversity everywhere. The belief was that America was an extremely diverse place, much like Bahrain. When she arrived in Iowa, she found herself being one of the few darker people on campus, being one of thirty international students.
There were also very few advisors and mentors for international students, and both students and faculty didn’t know exactly how to interact with Karunakar.
“That entire [first] semester, I cried every single day. I was extremely home sick…I felt people didn’t know how to engage me,” Karunakar said. It was the first time where she felt as if she was different.
After her first semester, she believed that she was finished with Northwestern College. She didn’t want to feel home sick and she didn’t want to deal with sticking out so much, and feeling like she was so different from everyone else. That summer, she returned to Bahrain and searched for another college, but amidst the search she stopped and asked herself if she did anything at the college to change the situation for herself. She discovered that she didn’t try to change the situation for herself, saying that she never took action for herself and waited for people to come to her.
She decided to return for her second semester and through her friends, found herself being the secretary of an international club.
“I inundated people with emails, pretty much how I inundate people now,” she said. She began to get involved in student programming, exploring different options and connecting with people to ground themselves on campus. They eventually threw an event called The Ethnic Fair with different assortments of foods that the club cooked, which took two nights, and practiced different dances from different cultures. On the day of the fair, they had about 600 people arrive to experience the food and dance from different cultures, and the members of the international club running to different dances to participate and help each other.
“That’s what happens when students are involved, there’s just a kind of magic that you will never be able to have outside of college,” Karunakar said. Through her time programming events and being the secretary for the club, she discovered just how strong the power of students is. She gained energy from the fact that students and faculty gave the group space to speak and helped them grow.
Through the second semester of her senior year she was doing student teaching and was eventually asked if she’d like a job as multicultural student affairs doing what she was already doing. Though she was already applying for jobs that were outside of Iowa, in places as close as San Francisco and countries as far as Germany, she accepted the job and worked in Iowa for eight years after she graduated with her bachelor’s in education. While she worked in Iowa she gained her masters degree in higher education and student development. She also worked at Taylor University in Indiana as the director of international student programs, then was promoted to assistant director of intercultural programs of for four years. After the four years, she took a break and took a step back, trying to find something else she could devote herself too, but couldn’t find anything. After a year she decided to apply at USM and she began working last February.
Karunakar has a very strong love for culture, describing culture as “moldable.” All her past experiences with different people while she lived with in Bahrain, hanging out with her international friends constantly while she was attending Northwestern, and they encouraged each other and acted as family with each other.
While she is here at USM she wants to create transparency between her and the students and want to create space where students can engage with her and with others, and explore their own culture and other cultures. Karunakar also explains that she wants more fluidity between students and their cultures on a deeper level than what it is now, but says that she can only create space and cannot force anyone until the students can fully trust her and get to know her. She is very devoted to wanting the students to get involved, feel supported and feel empowered by their culture, and stresses that she is always willing to talk with students that may have any suggestions.