Photo Courtesy of Shreeya Singh
“It’s still strange to hear someone else say it. I’m waiting for someone to tell me I got pranked,” Shreeya Singh (TD ‘22) said, reflecting on the moment when she was named a Rhodes Scholar last month, “Or I forget, and then I remember suddenly, like, oh, that actually happened. I don’t think I’ve internalized it yet.”
I met Shreeya, a history major focusing on South Asian studies, for coffee at Maison Mathis. Even though we had only spoken over email, she greeted me with a hug.
A self-professed fantasy nerd from Florida, Shreeya imagined Oxford as the dream where her favorite childhood novels take place. And now, it’s the school she’ll be attending next year.
Shreeya’s passion for South Asian studies traces back to her childhood. She was born in Ahmedabad, India, in 1999. When she was a few months old, she and her mother immigrated to the United States to join her father, an architecture student at the University of Miami.
Her family emigrated to South Florida along with nine other families, all settling on the same street. The ten immigrant families formed a community Shreeya reluctantly described as “culturally conservative.” She took a moment to decide whether “conservative,” with all its American connotations, was the word she wanted to use.
“I grew up in an environment that very much preserved Indian culture and our relationship with India,” she explained, “Not just to food and music and film, but also these ideas of India as a nation, and India and Pakistan, and ideas of ownership over Kashmir, and ideas of allegiance to whoever is the Indian government at the time.”
Shreeya thus inherited an interest in Indian culture and politics, but she developed her own opinions on political ideologies. “Because I was so immersed in Indian history and culture from a young age, questioning the assumptions that I grew up around made me want to pursue it in an academic way,” she said.
Academics and experience eventually inspired Shreeya’s activism. She took action while at Yale, founding an organization called Students Against Hindutva Ideology. The organization created a network across American universities for students opposed to the Modi government, the creator of the Citizenship Amendment Act. In 2019, the organization staged protests across 15 schools. “And they were very successful,” Shreeya said. “It was a great growing experience.”
In order to protect student identities, particularly those of Indian Muslims targeted by the Citizenship Amendment Act, most of the public statements from the organization came under Shreeya’s name. So in the aftermath of the protest, Shreeya was “doxxed” by the right wing Indian politics. Malicious sources revealed her identity online, resulting in thousands of hateful and threatening messages directed at her.
Fortunately, Shreeya didn’t feel physically unsafe. “All of these threats were coming from anonymous people in India,” she said. She considered the doxxing as a reminder of the importance of her work in the diaspora. “It made me think about the privilege I have to speak about these issues without being physically harmed,” Shreeya said. “I was born in India, and I know for a fact that if I was doing the same kind of work in India proper, it would be so much more difficult.”
The ability to make a difference at a distance has inspired Shreeya to study at Oxford, and to speak out against Hindu Nationalism through research.
“Something that I encountered throughout my thesis research was that there’s just a limited access to primary sources in Hindi and related to India in the United States,” Shreeya explained. But because of the United Kingdom’s imperial relationship to South Asia historically, it offers a substantial amount of the artifacts Shreeya needs. “Just being there, I realized, would give me a lot of access to the kind of primary sources that I need to continue this kind of research.”
I asked Shreeya for her thoughts on the colonialist history of the Rhodes Scholarship and English possession of South Asian artifacts: “Politically, I am for repatriation of sources,” Shreeya said, “I think that colonial governments that have taken material from the developing world should return those materials.”
But when it comes to researching early Hindu nationalism, sources are more accessible while abroad. “Because this current government censors access to academic materials so heavily,” Shreeya said, “it’s just easier to do this research when you’re outside of India and in the diaspora.”
Shreeya acknowledged that the history and money behind the Rhodes scholarship still carries a legacy of imperialism. But both Shreeya and the Rhodes scholarship program are working to counter that legacy. “I think what the Rhodes seeks out, and the scholars they try to empower, are people actively trying to break down the legacy of imperialism and colonialism in modern society,” she said, “The fact that there’s such a complicated legacy to the Rhodes Scholarship only adds to the obligation for current scholars to genuinely stand up for the values that we came in with.”
Throughout our conversation, Shreeya spoke of her family and community with deep gratitude. She is the oldest of three siblings, with a sister at Brown and a brother still in high school. Her father is an Urban Designer for the City of Miami, and her mother recently published a children’s book, “Birds of a Feather.” Shreeya describes her parents as artists who focus on art and stories surrounding Indian culture. “Seeing their commitment to being in the United States and in the diaspora, but still carrying on Indian heritage and exposing us to it in this positive way,” she explained, “made me want to engage with it from a very young age.”
Shreeya’s face lit up when I asked if she was an artist as well. “Art is my passion,” she said, instantly. “And my stress relief. I’ve been painting my whole life.”
Like her parents, Shreeya sees art as a vehicle for change. “I take art in particular as a really powerful way of political expression and thinking about how to draw a line from the way things are felt and thought to how they’re expressed to others,” she said. She has an extensive background in competitive debate — she later told me she’s only ever been to Oxford once, as a representative of Yale’s debate team — but she sees art as the more effective way to truly communicate with people.
Shreeya showed me a photo of one of her paintings, zooming into a detail of a woman with a blue headscarf. The painting is both impressive and charming — something that requires talent most of us couldn’t imagine, but still glows with a captivating gentleness. It’s the work of someone who genuinely cares.
In the eight months before she heads to England, Shreeya wants to return to her art. She plans to work out, read and probably volunteer, “at least to give the next few months a bit of structure.” But she’s looking forward to the peace between Yale and Oxford. “What’s nice is that I know what the next step is,” Shreeya said. “I don’t feel that much pressure to add anything to my resume or do anything like that. I want to use this time to just pursue art, focus on myself, get in touch with the things that I haven’t had time to do while going through History.”
Before receiving the Rhodes Scholarship, Shreeya thought her post-graduation goal was law school, which still might be part of her future, but she has time to decide. “I get to think and explore, look at what my options are,” she said, “This opens a lot of doors, and I’m open to changing my plans.”
At Oxford, she intends to apply for a masters in International Relations, Public Policy, or a related field. “I’m hoping to pick up more of a policy background because I come from a history major,” she said.
Across the pond, she looks forward to the Indian food and tea. As a History major and Harry Potter fan, she delights in Oxford itself. “The fact that these buildings are centuries old and I can just be inside these spaces is so exciting,” she said. “I grew up reading these fantasy stories set in Oxford and imagining them in my head. Actually being there is like a dream,” she added, already speaking with the joy of a main character.