News | 13 March 2024

New gifts launch projects and experiential learning in Sikh studies

By Ann Gibb


Generous gifts to UC Santa Cruz from the 5Rivers Foundation and the Sikh Foundation will raise awareness and understanding of Sikhism through two distinct projects. Each project includes paid internships—benefiting students and strengthening the Humanities Division’s commitment to experiential education. Both gifts will also work to raise awareness about the Sikh religion and address persistent misconceptions.

The Sikh Foundation gift establishes a paid undergraduate internship for UC Santa Cruz students over the next five years. Sikh Foundation Student Internship projects may include assisting the foundation in curating art shows, producing videos, and creating other media productions; highlighting the work of Sikh and non Sikh entrepreneurs; and developing educational programming. Interns will also focus on Sikh history, art, language, and culture with the hope of benefitting the Sikh community in California.

“The Sikh Foundation’s mission is to provide awareness of who Sikhs are, what we are, what we believe in, and how we support the right things in life for humanity,“ says Raj Kapany, a board member at the Sikh Foundation and son of the foundation’s founders, Satinder and Dr. Narinder Kapany. Raj Kapany is also a UC Santa Cruz Foundation Trustee.

The gift to The Humanities Institute from the 5Rivers Foundation will support “Sikhs in the 21st Century: Remembering the Past, Engaging the Future,” a new three-year project designed to directly address the misconceptions and general lack of knowledge about Sikhism. It was conceptualized by Nivikar Singh, an economics professor at UC Santa Cruz, and his academic partner, Inderjit N. Kaur of the University of Michigan.

“Sikhism, although the fifth largest and newest of the major religions, is relatively unknown,” says P. Khanuja of the 5RiversFoundation. “It has aptly been described as a universal religion with its message of oneness. It embodies values of equality, compassion, social justice, and community service. The desire to foster understanding amongst diverse communities serves as a powerful motivator to increase awareness and develop a more inclusive and informed community.”

Both gifts will be transformational for UC Santa Cruz and the Humanities Division.

Photos courtesy of the Kapany Art Collection.

“We are honored and grateful to receive these meaningful commitments to our Sikh Studies program,” says Jasmine Alinder, dean of the Humanities Division. “I am especially happy that these gifts will have multiple impacts on our students and faculty, while also advancing knowledge of Sikh culture, art, and history. They exemplify the kind of partnership and investment we hope to expand upon.”

The Sikh Foundation and the Sikh Foundation Student Internship

The Sikh Foundation was created in 1967 by Satinder and Narinder Kapany, who were also long-term supporters of UC Santa Cruz. When they launched the foundation, both Satinder and Narinder were in their early 30s and had recently moved to California from India, where they had been born. Narinder had built a career in fiber optics before being recruited by venture capitalists to work in Silicon Valley.

“They were prescient,” says Kiki Kapany, Raj’s sister and fellow board member, describing her parents’ creation of the foundation. “My parents realized there was very little diversity in Silicon Valley at that time and were inspired by their profound connection to Sikh heritage, and to each other, to create a connection between the American and Sikh cultures.” 

A key component of the Sikh Foundation is its unique and extensive art collection. Led by Satinder, the Kapanys spent decades assembling the world’s first-known collection of Sikh art. Encompassing artwork of all kinds from the 17th to the 21st centuries, the remarkable Kapany Collection demonstrates the rich and varied heritage of Sikh art, and helps to preserve and raise awareness of Sikh arts and culture—an especially important role in the face of the Sikh diaspora. A 2022 exhibit at UCSC showcased the collection. The Smithsonian Institution published Sikh Art from the Kapany Collection in 2021.

“My parents wanted the foundation to foster a sense of pride and identity between Sikhs worldwide,” says Kiki, “and to address the lack of global awareness of Sikh culture and art.” 

The Sikh Foundation gift to UC Santa Cruz creates a paid undergraduate internship—the Sikh Foundation Student Internship.

Isha Kamboh (Stevenson ’25, critical race and ethnic studies/legal studies) is the foundation’s first intern in winter quarter 2024.

“It feels like such an honor to be the inaugural intern,” she says. “I had never seen a position like it. It’s an opportunity to engage with my culture and explore aspects of my culture while I’m away from home.”

The daughter of Punjabi immigrants, Kamboh grew up in Southern California. Now in her junior year, the Stevenson College undergraduate is double majoring in legal studies and critical race and ethnic studies and plans to become a lawyer. In addition to her studies and the internship, Kamboh is a resident associate (RA) in her social justice–themed dorm. One reason she accepted the RA leadership role is to share what she learns through the internship with her community and residents, as well as with the broader Cowell College–Stevenson College student population at their community-wide events. Kamboh is also looking forward to engaging students through the internship’s initiative of bringing entrepreneurial Sikh speakers on campus. “Seeing a successful entrepreneur who looks like you is meaningful,” she says. 

The Sikh Foundation Student Internship is grounded in experiential learning and is designed to integrate hands-on training with focused reflection, taking learning from the abstract into practice. The internship aligns with the Humanities Division’s Employing Humanities initiative that provides undergraduates with paid and for-credit experiential learning opportunities that connect their classroom curriculum with hands-on training, including undergraduate research and internships.

“Experiential education is about learning by doing,” says Kiki. “It’s the only way to create thought, and it’s also one with entrepreneurship. Immersing in practical experience and empowering is at the heart of what the Sikh Foundation does.”

Sikhs in the 21st Century: Remembering the Past, Engaging the Future”

Through a series of five short videos, the “Sikhs in the 21st Century” program will focus on correcting widespread inaccurate information about Sikh traditions, history, and culture. 

“We want to do things in a scholarly way, including a close review of conventional wisdom,” says Nivikar Singh, the program’s creator. The videos will be deeply researched, accurate, and engaging, and are primarily intended to inform the practice of academics and scholars, who often shape broader perspectives on Sikhism through their teaching and research. The videos, which will include translation and Punjab subtitles, will also be available to the general public and may be a bridge between scholarship and the Sikh community’s understanding of itself. 

“These are big issues,” says Singh. “We’ll look at specific questions and re-examine them, with special attention to understanding that these are complex issues and not just a matter of scholarship versus belief.” 

Some of the topics covered will be the origins of Sikhism, the Sikh diaspora, and Sikh sacred spaces. UCSC video experts at the Teaching and Learning Center will support the project.

UC Santa Cruz undergraduate alumna and current graduate student Samantha Stringer (Merrill ’20, history, Ph.D. candidate, literature) is a paid intern working alongside the project’s large team of academics and media specialists. To ensure that the videos are rich with visual and aural primary source material, a crucial component in presenting factually accurate information and engaging audiences, Stringer is designing and compiling a new database. Support from the 5Rivers Foundation and The Humanities Institute allows her internship to be paid.

“Internet material disappears,” says Stringer. “We are creating a database that is as secure as possible, and inputting information so that even if the source material is lost, we still have a complete description of it.”

As well as providing the material for the Sikhs in the 21st Century video series, the database captures historical content for potential future use by scholars in many fields. 

“We want to make the data ‘stick’ and be adaptable, and to have uses in addition to our videos. We’re thinking 10 steps ahead, to how the data could get corrupted, and how to make it as secure and usable as possible for different options,” says Stringer. “For example, I hope an art historian could come in and find it useful for their work, or a historian of U.S. immigration.”

At this time the database includes approximately 500 “objects,” ranging from very early manuscripts and manuscripts on ritual practice, to representations of artwork, to contemporary music productions. 

In addition to the videos, the 5Rivers Foundation is funding other activities of the “Sikhs in the 21st Century” program, including providing mini-grants for young faculty studying various aspects of Sikhism, organizing conferences and workshops to share and discuss the grant-funded products, as well as generating ideas for new projects.

“‘Sikhs in the 21st Century’ is the kind of interdisciplinary, public-facing scholarly project that The Humanities Institute is proud to be able to help facilitate. It’s a complicated, ambitious project, as evidenced by the wide-ranging team, including an economist, an ethnomusicologist, a language specialist, a scholar in critical race and ethnic studies, regional and national partners, videographers, and a clutch of graduate student researchers,” says Pranav Anand, UC Santa Cruz professor, Department of Linguistics, and faculty director of The Humanities Institute. “The role of The Humanities Institute is to ensure that this amazing group of scholars and practitioners can achieve their vision.”

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