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Global Studies student finds her voice in interfaith activism and communityGlobal Studies senior Rucha Modi in front of the U.S. Capitol steps. (Photo provided by Ms. Modi.)

Global Studies student finds her voice in interfaith activism and community

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

When Rucha Modi graduates in June, she will not only have earned a B.A. in global studies, but accumulated a rich body of experience in interfaith activism.

UCLA International Institute, May 06, 2021 — “One of the most beautiful parts of my UCLA experience has been learning what my voice is, and learning that it’s okay to speak up where there is silence,” says UCLA global studies senior Rucha Modi.

When she arrived at UCLA, says the devout Hindu and second-generation American, “I felt I had to choose between an identification with secularism and progressivism, on one hand, and religiosity and conservatism, on the other,” she says.

Rucha had spent several years in high school as a volunteer tour guide at her Hindu mandir (temple) in Chino Hills, California. The temple, whose construction was initially fiercely resisted in her home town, was later “embraced by the same stakeholders who had initially resisted it,” she relates. “As a tour guide, I witnessed the transformational impact of interfaith dialogue in building tolerance, cultivating mutual respect and fostering community.

“Of course, I didn’t consider what I was doing as interfaith work at the time, I was just being a tour guide,” she shares. It was her studies and student experiences at UCLA that led Rucha to discover interfaith social justice activism and find an interfaith community.

When she graduates in June, she will not only have earned a B.A., but accumulated a rich body of experience in interfaith activism, student government and student political organizing, volunteering and even developing an interfaith Fiat Lux class

“At UCLA, I have found the greatest sense of belonging and community in my research and organizing work,” she comments.

Global Studies as a way to engage the world

Rucha choose to major in global studies because she had always wanted to learn more about the world and her own place within it, “especially because as the child of Indian immigrants, I had a completely different experience within the [family] house than outside the house,” she says.

“I feel that global studies gives us great flexibility, but pairs that with the rigor of a language requirement and a senior thesis. For me, it was the right balance of agency and flexibility.”

In her sophomore year, Rucha traveled to Israel/Palestine on a Fact Finders trip sponsored by Hillel at UCLA with a group of politically and religiously diverse students, where they learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“As a person of faith, I was curious about going to the land of Israel/Palestine, which has great religious significance for the Abrahamic traditions. Wandering the streets of Jerusalem with Muslim, Christian and Jewish students was a deeply influential interfaith experience.”

Upon her return, Rucha and two other students organized a multimedia exhibition at Hillel about their trip. The exhibit sparked conversations among peers and colleagues from various student political organizations who, she says, would otherwise not have been in the same room.

Another transformative experience was attending the Global Studies Travel Study Program in New York City in 2019. “I think one of the best parts about the program is that you get to be with many Global Studies majors — you live with them, learn with them, hang out with them and explore the city,” shares Rucha.

Perhaps most significantly, Rucha attended the UCLA’s Quarter in Washington, DC, hosted by the Center for American Politics and Public Policy (CAPPP) in winter 2020. With CAPPP’s support and mentorship, she landed an internship at the progressive think tank, Center for American Progress, where she worked on their faith initiative.

“That was the first time I was exposed to the world of progressive folks who are compelled by their faith to do social justice work,” she says. “I had always seen that as my own reality, but I hadn’t found that community elsewhere.”

During her internship, Rucha represented the Hindu faith at an interfaith prayer breakfast prior to a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on the DACA program. “Here I was, 20 years old, holding hands with members of Congress during a prayer at the Capitol Building,” she relates.

“There just aren’t that many Hindus who are welcomed into or actively called into those kind of spaces, so it was a powerful experience. Often, I am the only Hindu representative in interfaith gatherings.”

Rucha’s internship related directly to a research seminar that she took at the UCDC center and to the capstone research project she did for her public affairs minor. Surprised by the pro-LGBTQ interfaith organizing she encountered at the think tank, she decided to do a study of New York Times coverage of religion.

The study focused on the extent to which conservative Christian voices saturate the media and shape the narrative on issues such as same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. Media coverage had given Rucha the impression that most religious Americans were anti-LGBTQ, despite public opinion data that demonstrates otherwise. Upon her return to UCLA, she won a Dean’s Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Research for the project.

Rucha shared her research presentation with her manager at the Center for American Progress. Several months later, she received a call: donor funding had become available for Rucha to do an extended version of the project, would she be interested?

Beginning in summer 2020, she spent six months designing and implementing a larger research study on the same topic, checking in with the Center for American Progress every few weeks. “Towards the homestretch, my bosses at the center and the folks on the editorial and art teams all came together to help get the report over the finish line,” she relates. “That’s how I became the lead author on a study published by national think tank.*

“All that was possible because of the way UCLA had set me up in terms of the internship, the DC research seminar and undergraduate research week,” she comments, adding that she also received support from a campus statistics help center, her UCLA professors and UCDC advisor.

Another formative experience in Rucha’s evolution as an interfaith activist was a public speaking engagement in 2020, when a UCLA professor asked her to replace a Hindu speaker who had dropped out of an LA Voice interfaith action against white supremacy.

“I’ve been deeply involved with student government at UCLA, but I’ve always perceived myself a behind-the-curtains person,” she says. After sitting down to think through her personal experiences and faith for six hours, she ultimately delivered a speech about why her Hindu faith calls her to challenge white supremacy. “That was very meaningful for me, particularly as there are so few non-Abrahamic voices at these kind of events,” she says.

Creating a campus interfaith community

“When I came back to UCLA [from Washington, DC], I was energized and started to hunt for other folks interested in questions of interfaith organizing,” says Rucha. Unfortunately, the UCLA campus closed in-person operations due to the coronavirus pandemic, seemingly foiling her efforts.

Undeterred, Rucha and similarly minded students of faith went on to create an interfaith student chaplain program at the UCLA University Religious Conference in summer 2020. The program has operated virtually so far, with the first group of chaplains meeting online and organizing discussions relevant to all students of faith on campus.

Looking ahead, the soon-to-be UCLA graduate will spend next year on a Fulbright research grant in India, where she will study existing interfaith dialogue programs for youth. When she returns, she plans to pursue an international-facing career.

“Reflecting on my identity and what I have learned, I am called not to work directly in other countries, but rather, to reshape how the U.S. positions itself respective to the rest of the world,” she says.

* Rucha Modi, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, Maggie Siddiqi and Rasheed Malik, “How Religion and LGBTQ Rights Intersect in Media Coverage,” Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, December 2020.