Sikh studies at UCalgary rooted in community
With Canada being home to the largest population of Sikhs outside of India — and with a significant portion of them in Alberta — it’s no surprise to find Sikh Studies courses at the University of Calgary in demand among Sikh students. What supporters hadn’t counted on was such a strong interest among those outside of the Sikh community.
“I get students coming from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of reasons for entering the program,” says sessional instructor Dr. Harjeet Grewal, PhD. “Usually, they’re curious, having heard about Sikhs in the news or had previous contact with Sikhs through childhood friendships or colleagues. That’s led many of them to want to learn about Sikhism from an academic perspective.”
Recently, much of that news coverage has been around the outpouring of humanitarian support from the Sikh community during the COVID-19 pandemic — from providing free food to thousands of people each day here in Calgary, to setting up hospitals and providing oxygen and ambulances in India.
Those efforts, notes Grewal, have sparked new interest in Sikhism among students from a variety of backgrounds, eager to explore Sikh history, literature, philosophy and religion. Similarly, the parallels between Sikhism and Canadian values have attracted Sikhs from around the world to this country.
“Here we have a large minority community whose values align very strongly with Canada’s aims as a nation,” he says. Diversity, inclusion, pluralism, multiculturalism — all are ideals held highly by Sikhs and Canadians alike.
That community-mindedness is a driving force behind the development of UCalgary’s Sikh Studies program, and its highly anticipated expansion. This past April, the Faculty of Arts launched a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $250,000 to grow the program. In just three weeks, more than twice that was raised, with gifts coming in from alumni, students, staff, faculty and supporters of all backgrounds and from across Canada.
The fundraiser was part of UCalgary’s record-breaking Giving Day. Since its inception in 2017, the university’s annual fundraising blitz has typically raised around $1 million each year. Giving Day 2021, however, blew past that goal, raising more than $1.67 million to create lasting, positive change — at UCalgary and in the community — by enriching student experiences, advancing critical research and accelerating innovation.
What the Sikh community did this Giving Day was a powerful demonstration of what’s possible when a group of like-minded individuals rally around a common goal. It’s not about how much one individual can give — it’s about what is possible when we work together.
Director of Development, Faculty of Arts
For Sikh Studies, that means expanded course selection, research and community engagement, setting the groundwork for a robust program that will make a substantial and long-term impact. The expansion, including the potential for the creation of a Chair of Sikh Studies and other permanent positions, goes towards making UCalgary a leader in the field — and is wholeheartedly supported by both university and Faculty of Arts administration as part of UCalgary’s commitment to creating an equitable, diverse and inclusive campus.
“The university genuinely listened to an underrepresented student group and then reached out to the Sikh community to see what could be done to meet their needs,” Grewal says. “UCalgary recognizes the societal benefits (of the Sikh Studies program) and how it fits into the university's development scheme, and the community recognizes these benefits as well.”
Concetta Sonnenberg, director of development with the Faculty of Arts, agrees, noting the positive impact of Sikh studies at UCalgary. “Diversity of perspective is foundational to social sciences, humanities and the arts, where the question of ‘whose voice is not included’ is asked as much as ‘whose voice is included,’” says Sonnenberg, BA’05, MA’09. "Diverse perspectives and voices are critical in solving the world’s most challenging issues.”
Not only is the Sikh Studies program a natural fit with the university, but the efforts behind it are what Giving Day is all about.
“What the Sikh community did this Giving Day was a powerful demonstration of what’s possible when a group of like-minded individuals rally around a common goal,” says Sonnenberg. “It’s not about how much one individual can give — it’s about what is possible when we work together.”
For Grewal, who has been championing Sikh Studies at UCalgary since 2017, the show of support on Giving Day was uplifting — and somewhat unexpected. He recalls a conversation he had with students before the campaign launched. Not expecting significant external support, he wanted to manage their expectations. The students, however, weren’t convinced.
“Academics don’t often like to be wrong,” he says with a laugh. “But I was more than happy to be wrong on this one.”
To learn more about giving and how your support makes a difference, contact our giving team.
What Giving Gives Me
The goal of creating Canada’s first Sikh Studies Chair isn’t just a way for the Sikh community to celebrate itself, it’s also a way for the Sikh community to give back to Canada. Sikhism is a powerful force for social justice and the elevation of spiritual life that offers benefit to everyone. I’m humbled my donation contributes to that.
Bob Dhillon, Founder, President, and CEO of Mainstreet Equity Corp
Donor and proponent of Sikh Studies at UCalgary