The Rise of South Asian Studies in U.S. Colleges

College students are increasingly tapping into their heritage not just at home but also at school. But access and resources aren’t always equal.

Kavya Srikanth

August 29, 2022

The Rise of South Asian Studies in U.S. Colleges
The M.S. Chadha Center for Global India, from left to right, are: Stephen Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs and director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies; Peter Wendell, Class of 1972; Kush Parmar, Class of 2002; Princess Padmaja Kumari Mewar; Sumir Chadha, Class of 1993; Sanjay Swani, Class of 1987; Preeti Swani; and Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. (Kevin Birch, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies)

Andrew Philip remembers his first South Asian Studies class. It was the summer after his freshman year at Ohio State. A young, wide-eyed Philip sat in the lecture hall of “Indian Literature in English,” shocked to see a South Asian American professor commanding the floor. “[That] was such a powerful experience…to see yourself reflected from the front of the room, those perspectives being shared.”

A driven pre-med student, Philip didn’t know much about South Asian Studies — a department offering classes on the Indian subcontinent and neighboring countries — other than that, he wanted to take a few Hindi classes. Little did he know that the course would change his life. Fast forward a few years, and Philip was double-majoring in Ethnic Studies with a minor in South Asian Studies. His English professor became a beloved mentor, someone he regularly turns to for advice on his career.

Philip’s story is an increasingly common one. Across the U.S., South Asian Studies departments, centers, and minors are popping up in growing numbers. When Philip joined the budding South Asian Studies minor at Ohio State, he was one of the few. But today, South Asian Studies enjoys a surge of financial support, especially at coastal universities — no surprise when South Asians are one of the fastest-growing and wealthiest ethnic groups in the U.S. In just the past five years, the University of Central Florida’s India Center received $1 million, Harvard University’s South Asia Institute received $25 million, and Brown University received $10 million for its newly-renamed Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia. From 2000 to 2018, Indian-origin alumni donated $1.2 billion to U.S. schools.

Regional studies departments at American universities are not a new phenomenon. The recent rise of South Asian Studies has left some wondering why it took so long. For others, the increase in resources is still insufficient and fails to keep pace with the region's rich history and current growth.