After a year and a half of advocacy, Northwestern’s Hindu community gets first ever chaplain

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Illustration by Carly Schulman

Students were directly involved in the chaplain selection process. Shah was confirmed on April 2, and announced to the community later the same month.

Yunkyo Kim, Campus Editor

Growing up, Weinberg junior Pari Thakkar said Hinduism was a significant part of her life. However, after she came to Northwestern, she had no one to go to with questions about navigating her relationship with religion as a college student.  

“I think oftentimes, as a secular university, we tend to forget about the importance of religion for those who practice it and choose to rely on it and depend on it,“ Thakkar said. 

A chaplain was necessary for the Hindu community at NU, Thakkar said. 

The University instituted a Hindu chaplain position after over 150 years since its founding. NU now has an estimated 800 Hindus in its community, inaugural chaplain Amar Shah (Weinberg ‘16) said, based on estimations from the Department of Religious and Spiritual Life. 

Through OM at Northwestern, a Hindu student club of which she is co-president, Thakkar started advocating for the creation of a chaplain. The OM executive board submitted a proposal in Fall 2019 in collaboration with Bhakti Yoga Society, she said. 

However, when COVID-19 hit, the proposal was delayed due to the University’s pause in hiring. 

When RSL Executive Director Kristen Glass Perez was hired in fall 2020, the students took the proposal to her and received advocacy support, Thakkar said. They then sent a letter of petition to University President Morton Schapiro, expressing the need for Hindu representation and support among RSL’s faculty. 

Students were directly involved in the chaplain selection process. Shah was confirmed on April 2, and announced to the community later the same month. 

Thakkar said the chaplain will be a great resource for incoming students as well as those returning to campus after a global pandemic. 

“We have several other resources that students can look towards for mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, but to have somebody who understands one’s experiences and complicated relationship with religion in these times — it is so important,” Thakkar said. 

However, having a Hindu chaplain was always a necessity, OM co-president and Weinberg junior Mirage Modi said, but it has only now come to fruition. 

As a student on the pre-med track, Modi said having a chaplain increases representation for the Hindu community and allows people to have conversations about how representation in medicine helps cater to patients’ needs. 

“Students on campus have a mentor or somebody to look toward when they have questions. when they’re just in doubt, when they want to learn more about Hinduism,” Modi said. “(But) from a more administrative statement, Hindu students now have a voice on the faculty board.”

Shah said he was thankful to NU for taking student voices into account instead of administrators. The University allowed students to openly participate in the chaplain applicant evaluation and selection process, he added, which he called a grassroots approach.

As an alumnus, Shah is proud that his position came from student advocacy, he said.  

“I’m very proud of the steps that both Northwestern, as well as the Northwestern staff and RSL is taking to recognize that this is a need,” Shah said. “I’m incredibly proud of the students who really were activists to make this happen.”

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