Narayan Kulkarni’s essay will take him to Tokyo this week.
Kulkarni, a University of Florida student, was recently awarded first place in the youth category of the 2015 International Essay Contest for Young People. He will receive his award in Japan.
In his essay, “Building Peace Begins from Within,” Kulkarni, 21, reflects on the treatment he received from peers after the 9/11 attacks because of his ethnicity, his coping methods and finding inner peace. He turned to religion and academics to avoid the memories but instead found ways to confront his past.
Kulkarni’s work was chosen out of 8,943 essays from 148 countries. The theme of the essay was “building peace in our hearts and minds.”
The Goi Peace Foundation, which is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, hosted the competition.
Reflecting on his victory, Kulkarni, a fourth-year biology student, said he feels surprised, overwhelmed and happy. This is the first essay contest he’s entered, and to win one of this scale is very surprising, he said.
Kulkarni said he learned about karma, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. Karma helped him to understand how good and bad things affect people, he said, and Mother Teresa showed him how compassion and one’s talents can “selflessly serve the world.”
He said the writing experience allowed him to think in a more analytical way and as a process with the help of his advisors. Staying within the 700-word limit and writing eloquently was a challenge, he said.
“It’s almost like a burden off my shoulders to write that into a written form rather than thinking about it and contemplating it,” he said.
If people are exposed to the experiences of different backgrounds, they will “recognize shared struggles, develop empathy and respect their differences,” Kulkarni wrote in his essay. This allows people to feel connected to one another, reflect on their own story and use their knowledge for a positive purpose.
Finding a community of people with similar experiences at UF reassured Kulkarni, an Indian-American, especially after feeling some isolation in elementary school. Although there were more Indian students in his middle and high schools in Tampa, they did not identify as Indian-American.
Because of this, Kulkarni said he was not able to have a dialogue with them or relate to them. However, his peers in college were willing to talk and shared similar experiences. When Kulkarni realized the post-9/11 stories of minority students were rarely heard and almost silenced, he coordinated a candlelight vigil and panel to shed a light on the minority perspective.
“The conventional discourse about 9/11 is either about how there’s a bunch of statistics on how there’s been hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs, etc. and discrimination against them, but no actual human story to go beyond it,” he said.
Alex Cena, director of UF’s Asian Pacific Islander American Affairs, said he really likes that the essay is an unapologetic claim to one’s life story and hopes that it’s a model for other students.
“I think sometimes we grow up trying to shift our narrative so it fits in with what other people think and believe,” he said. “Parts of our identity kind of get lost in the mix along the way.”
Cena said he likes that in Kulkarni’s story, “he talks about those major influences and things that are unique to his experience that molded his belief.”
When someone is recognized for sharing his or her story and how it’s made an impact, it also shows others how they can live as openly and comfortably as possible, Cena said.
Kulkarni believes he is part of a community that allows minorities, who might be judged and experience internal struggles, a way to express their voice. His desire to be involved in this community comes from knowing what it was like to not be able to empower one’s self, to not be able to overcome the unique internal struggle in one’s self and to not have the tools to understand one’s story.
“I want to be able to provide the same opportunity, to give other people the chance to develop these tools,” he said.
Kulkarni said he wants to help unfold and grow the leadership potential of students who enter the student organizations he’s involved in.
“I hope that there are a lot of students who follow in his footsteps, or are at least motivated from his essay or interacting with him, to take the steps in their own direction as well,” Cena said.