Maya Iyyani is a Hindu Indian-American who was born in Hollywood, Fla.
“Indian culture is absolutely beautiful, whether through it’s clothes, food or color,” she said. “I have been blessed with parents who always strongly encouraged me to remain in contact with my roots, putting me in Hindu Sunday school and Indian dance classes.”
During her sophomore year, Iyyani competed and won the Volunteers for International Student Affairs Pageant. She competed against other representatives from different organizations in VISA. She was able to learn about other cultures, while simultaneously showcasing her own.
“It meant so much to me that a ton of my non-Indian friends came out to support me,” she said. “Those friends taking an interest in my culture still makes me emotional. Also, just competing in a pageant is not something I thought I would ever do. I felt like an Indian princess!”
However, growing up as part of a minority has had it’s challenges in Iyyani’s life. While she has been able to share her love for her culture with others, she has faced a lot of strife.
“I’ve been fairly lucky in my experiences to not have dealt with as much hate as others have had to go through. Yet, have I been called a terrorist? Have I been told I’m going to hell? Have I been compared to a murderer because of my religious beliefs? Yes, yes, and yes,” she said. “I tell you these problems, not because I want your sympathy, but because I want your action for change.”
Iyyani finds being from a multicultural background at a school like UF a touchy subject.
“I love the University of Florida with all of my heart and it has given me so much,” she said. “But this University is kind-of like that one relative who says a lot of problematic things, but you love them anyway because they are family.”
She feels as though UF, like the U.S., is predominantly white. Although she does acknowledge that the university has many opportunities and resources for minority students, she feels as though there is a lot of progress left to make.
“It is so hard for me to look at the top leaders on this campus and see no one who looks like me,” she said. “Who is supposed to be my role model?”
“I’m sick of being defined within the context of a white person, as if they are the standard. I am not a nonwhite. I am an Indian-American and I am damn proud of that identity,” she said.
Gatorship is the most culturally enriching experience she has had at UF. It’s a leadership program that serves as a thought-provoking retreat for selected students to discuss their experience with issues such as race, gender, religion, sexuality and socioeconomic status.
“I think a lot of times at UF we mistake diversity to be about tolerating or simply being open-minded towards people,” she said. “Gatorship taught me that it is so much more important to accept and understand individuals. Gatorship changed the way I viewed the world, the way I understood myself, and it truly changed my entire life.”
In the future, Iyyani aspires to attend law school. She is not exactly sure what she wants to do, but she does know that she wants to work within the realm of social justice in order to fight for a world with little prejudice.
Despite the challenges Iyyani has faced, she is thankful for the way both of her cultures have influenced her life.
“My Indian culture really shaped me into the type of person who has a lot of respect for elders and authorities, a quality I think is important,” she said. “It has also shaped me into the type of person who is very accepting of others beliefs. I’m also thankful for the American in me: liberal, independent and strong.”
Picked up by The Independent Florida Alligator, which can be found here.