The Lessons Nina Davuluri Taught to the Indian diaspora…and to me

Pranav Guru
10 min readNov 13, 2021

When I was returning to the campus of Purdue University in 2017 for my sophomore year as an undergrad, it still felt like something was missing.

My first year, the whole life of being a college student had felt like being a fish out of water. As a first-generation Indian American, I was the first person on either side of my family to enroll in an undergraduate program at an American university.

On top of that, while being a computer science major didn’t feel like my cup of tea, it felt like the only feasible career my timid self could find my way into. So that became my freshman year in a nutshell. No extracurriculars, no parties, no game days. Just late nights of chugging Monster Energy while typing away lines of Java and C into a command prompt.

I still remember the night before my first class at the start of the new year. I remember feeling like I was looking for a missing piece to feel complete. Could I put a finger on it? Absolutely not.

I began the new year with the same reclusive attitude I held the previous year. I never left my dorm with the exception of lectures, meals, and the occasional office hours. Even the historic solar eclipse of August 21, 2017? I chose instead to take a nap and listen to Tom Petty on my new Spotify.

That’s when I realized; While my anxiety was making me isolated, my isolation was making me even more anxious. And while it would’ve been easy to look at my grades and assume things were going perfectly fine, I knew I deserved to live a better life. Because I deserved to be happier.

The classic mentality of self-help.

I knew the first hill to climb would be the fact I didn’t have a plan. I had never bought a self-help book before. Little did I know, I wouldn’t need one.

One lecture, I felt so bored that I opened up another tab on my laptop and searched “Indian American” on Google before clicking on a Wikipedia article of the same name.

I can’t remember what I was thinking at the time. What I did remember was how some aspects of upbringing as a child of immigrants led to my anxious state of mind. Asian American — particularly South Asian Americans — have historically been one of the most underrepresented demographics in the media landscape.

And when we have happened to find ourselves on the cover of a news article, we are often — either inadvertently or overtly — portrayed as examples of the model minority trope. The child prodigy entering college at 14, the latest Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, yet another STEM genius, or some old rich man on trial for white-collar crime.

One unhappy side effect the model minority stereotype has unfortunately had on Asian Americans (as well as many immigrants at large) is that it pits them against each other. Personally, as I grew up in suburban Chicago, I saw myself compared — sometimes unfavorably — to other Indian American students from a young age. As a result, I not only developed anxiety. My quiet animosity towards those I was pitted against led to me becoming dismissive of my Indian American heritage, as I falsely equated it with the root of my suffering.

In fact, the first time I had ever encountered the name “Nina Davuluri” was when I was a high school student. On September 15, 2013, the aforementioned 24-year-old winner of the Miss Syracuse and Miss New York pageants was crowned Miss America 2014. In the process, she became the first Indian American (as well as the second Asian American) to win the award. When I first heard the story, I immediately rolled my eyes and closed the laptop screen just a couple sentences into the article. After all, there are definitely better ways to announce the news than by saying she graduated from the University of Michigan on the Dean’s List and that she planned to use the prize money to pay her way through medical school (yet another Indian American stereotype).

But now, four years later, I stumbled across her name again. Front-and-center under the “Ethnicity” subsection of the Indian Americans Wikipedia article was her picture. This time, I was in a slightly different mood. A mood for something good.

In addition to using Davuluri’s picture, the “Ethnicity” subsection of the “Indian Americans” Wikipedia article also mentions “Although Asian-Indian Americans retain a high ethnic identity, they are known to assimilate into American culture while at the same time keeping the culture of their ancestors”

So I began browsing. But despite the fact that it started off as aimless browsing in the middle of a lecture, I kept scrolling even after the lecture had come to an end. It was only a matter of time before two things happened;

  • I was asked to leave the lecture hall so the next class could begin.
  • I started nodding my head at how many parallels the life of Nina Davuluri shared with mine.

Both children of South Indian immigrants, we both were raised by our grandmothers, learned the mother tongues of our families alongside English, and studied Indian classical performing arts as children.

Additionally, we both moved around a good amount growing up. Born in Canada, I came to the U.S. with my Tamil-speaking family when I was still an infant. I was raised in multiple communities across the Chicago metropolitan area — including Glen Ellyn, Mount Prospect, and Buffalo Grove — before finally settling in the neighborhood of Deerfield, where I finished high school.

Also, one common aspect of the first-generation Indian experience is for the children to participate in extracurricular activities deemed as “academic” or even “nerdy”. One running joke at Deerfield High School was that the reason the school didn’t have a so-called “South Asian Student Association” was because we — in fact — did have one; It just went by a different name: “Scholastic Bowl”. I never found that gag to be offensive. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t chuckle the first time I heard it.

Deerfield High’s scholastic bowl team qualified for the Class AA Illinois High School Association (IHSA) State Championship in 2004 and 2005, as well as advanced to sectionals by winning regionals in 2006 and 2010.

Of course, it’s not like every subtle detail was identical. One of the many things I envied about her childhood was that she actually got to spend several years living with her extended family in India. That was one thing that had been on my bucket list even before coming across that article.

Davuluri — pictured at the White House in 2013 — was born in New York to a Telugu Indian family. She also lived in Oklahoma and finally Michigan, where she finished high school and college.

By the time I had reached the end of the article, I was asking myself two things;

  • Is it possible to fall down a ‘Wikipedia rabbit hole’?
  • Was it wrong of me to — for years — secretly harbor resentment towards my own friends, family members, and culture?

Before my very eyes was an article about a woman who did something historic. But when you look at her life story, you realize her backstory was no different than that of your neighbor.

And if you think about it, those are the kind of people who make history; Ordinary people who follow their personal goals, thus becoming extraordinary in the process.

For years, I secretly fumed at being compared to classmates who I considered friends. At a young age, I had no guidance as to how to properly channel my anger. So I did the most regrettable deed possible;

I became angry at my culture. In the halls of my middle school and high school, I did everything I possibly could to distance myself from my Indian-ness.

But with my new perspective, I set out to leave all my hate behind. It all started with simple deeds such as reaching out to my old Indian American friends from high school just to ask “how are you?”. Before you know it, I was performing stand-up comedy on campus open mics, rifling through one-liners on my life as an Indian American and occasionally nodding my head to members of my community in the audience. I began using family vacations as a chance to experience nostalgia at watching my cousins’ kids grow up, hoping I could someday be a source of guidance and counsel for them as they keep growing.

After all, nothing would feel better than being able to guide them through the ups and downs of being the first one in your family who experiences not just the nation — but the lifestyle — of America.

Ultimately, the model minority trope— although not as overly harmful as other forms of anti-Asian sentiment — poses the danger of instilling feelings of rage among members of the community. But as more and more Asian Indians in the United States find their voice, the pushback has only grown stronger.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Which brings us back to Nina Davuluri.

In the aftermath of her historic victory, she subsequently and notoriously became targeted by immense racism and hate speech. One widespread form of criticism involved erroneously labeling Davuluri as an Arab (which some considered likely due to the date of the pageant being close to the anniversary of the September 11 attacks), which in turn resulted in her being falsely equated as a Muslim or, worse, a terrorist.

The backlash, which also included anti-Indian sentiment and Davuluri being labeled as un-American, was often compared to the criticism faced by Miss America 1984 Vanessa Williams (the first African American winner) as well as the antisemitism faced by Jewish American Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945.

But Davuluri learned a lesson from her unfortunate aftermath. In her post-victory media blitz, she quoted, “The biggest thing I realized is that many of these remarks aren’t necessarily meant to be malicious but are simply a factor of ignorance.”

Davuluri received the title of Miss America 2014 from the previous year’s winner and fellow former Miss New York winner Mallory Hagan

Since passing on the title of Miss America, Davuluri has become a prominent social activist and public speaker, promoting the platform of diversity ever since. A platform with a much-needed lesson for all:

The lesson that the standards of what it means to be American are always changing. Since the nationwide protests for racial equality took place last year, the people have come to understand that they don’t have to fit arbitrary molds to be considered American (especially not the mold of having blond hair and blue eyes).

Especially since last year culminated in the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, the nation’s first female Vice President, first Asian American Vice President, and first Vice President of African descent.

Looking back, I’m a person who despises labels (especially socio-political ones) because I feel certain terms carry more than they mean when they’re thrown around. Especially not the term “racist”. In all honesty, maybe I’m blessed. But I’ve personally never dealt with any legitimate instances of racism. To that, I’m grateful for the kind of people America has to offer. After all, that’s exactly why my parents immigrated here in the first place.

But have I dealt with ignorance? That’s another story. For many in my hometown, I was the only brown person they grew up around. So to assume everyone who passes an ignorant remark is malicious would be disingenuous to say the least.

Instead, it’s important to turn moments of ignorance into teaching moments. That way, not only do we truly create a “safe space” out of America, but we challenge ourselves to see the best in people (sometimes against the will of our reflexes).

Today, Nina Davuluri hosts the reality show Made in America on Zee TV America.

Davuluri said it best herself when she once said, “Understanding everyone’s beliefs and backgrounds and finding that common ground so we can all communicate in an open, honest, and respectful manner…is something I’ve essentially been promoting my entire life.”

I feel somewhat ashamed when I look back at how I was initially dismissive of her historic victory. By blindly assuming the headline was about yet another model minority example without even reading up on her, I was engaging in the same kind of behavior she has been working to prevent;


She’s taught the Indian diaspora to simply “be you” regardless of what ignorance other communities may flash or even the kind of ignorance we ourselves may believe in. To this day, Nina Davuluri has inspired not just one generation of South Asian Americans and members of the Indian diaspora.

Because at the end of the day, it’s about being grateful. Grateful towards ourselves, our families, our communities, and this nation for bringing all the first three things into the fold and letting us have a voice.

So I thank Nina Davuluri for the lesson she’s spent years teaching people across the world, as well as the one she unwillingly taught me. Additionally, I realize it’s important to show compassion and forgive my past mistakes. And I thank her for the hope her historic work still gives the millions she’s inspired, because it’s safe to say by now…I’m one of them.

It’s been an interesting road traveling from studying computer science to writing history. As much as I love history, I know it’s important to eventually stop looking into the past…and into the future.