Honestly, if you asked me as a Duke freshman what I thought I would be doing in five years, I could not have imagined the life I live today. My life right now consists of photographing people who are in love; getting paid to travel; and having freedom and control over my own time. I am a full-time wedding photographer with my own photography and videography businesses, and I am beyond lucky to live this life that I love.
In hindsight, I can trace it all back to those formative moments in college when I hopped off my pre-med track and decided instead to design my own major in documentary studies and Asian American studies in Program II. It was then that I learned two important lessons: the first about creating yet unimagined futures, and the second about utilizing and leveraging your resources.
Entering Duke as a freshman, I was academically strong, ambitious, pre-med—in other words, typical. What ended up setting me apart was my determination to take as many interesting courses as possible, regardless of their ability to help me graduate or look good to future employers. I took everything from cell biology to economics to cultural anthropology. But as the diversity of my class schedule grew, my commitment to the pre-med track quickly began to fade.
Of all things, organic chemistry became the pivot point. Sophomore year rolled around, and I knew I had to make a decision about my major and my future plans. I could not fathom spending hours in a lab (and subsequent years upon years in school and training) if becoming a doctor wasn't something I was passionate about. So rather than choose a career path or climb a ladder of success, I decided to structure a different lifestyle for myself. It was an audacious move accompanied by a fear of failure.
Of all the courses I had taken, my thoughts and academic pursuits kept returning to one—a documentary-studies course taught by two graduate students, “Re-Framing Asian America.” As our final project, we each created documentary-photography projects on topics of our choosing. Out of sheer curiosity, I pursued the question, “Why are there so many Asian-American Christians?” I interviewed people and sat in on church services and Bible studies. At one point, I even found myself photographing a group of Asian American college students praying over buckets of fried chicken at Bojangles on a Sunday afternoon. I had never imagined that my college education would leave the walls of the classroom in this way, nor had I imagined that photography would enter my studies. But the experience forever changed me. I had a new way of viewing learning, and I was willing to build my education upon it. I soon embarked on my brand new curriculum: Documenting Asian American studies.
Becoming a Program II student demanded independence and resourcefulness. Because I didn’t have my own academic department, I had to design courses to fit my own needs and rely on professors directly. I also had to defend the academic rigor and the legitimacy of my program repeatedly to myself and to others. But all of these constraints necessitated a kind of freedom and creativity that I loved. I spent my free time applying for grants that seemed underutilized by others, and this enabled me to travel around the country to conferences. I also tried to take advantage of my time outside the classroom, as I did photography for fun, making friends with photographers and photographing friends’ dance performances.
All of these elements planted little seeds that would come back together later on as I negotiated my new place in the “real world” as an entrepreneur creating my own photography career. It was my thesis grants that led me to California for a summer—a place I fell in love with and where I now live. It was a Defining Movement dance performance that became my first paid photography gig. It has been my numerous Duke connections that have turned a side hobby into a real wedding photography business. My Duke friends have been my clients, my cheerleaders, and my greatest supporters.
I never intended to become a photographer, just as I never intended to do Program II in documentary studies and Asian American studies. But it turns out that resourcefulness mixed with a bit of serendipity and a lot of love will take you to the most beautiful places you’ve yet to imagine.
I was supposed to be a geneticist. I was certain about that. Or at least I was as certain as one can be at eighteen. I’d spent years as an overachieving high-school student interning in research labs at the National Institutes of Health instead of being a “regular” teenager. When I got to Duke, I boldly assured my pre-major adviser that “pre-med/biology” was the right track for me. It’s what I was supposed to do. Why else would I have won all those damn science fairs? I was good at science. Besides, wasn’t it what everyone expected of me?
Fortunately, serendipity stepped in. The fall of my second year was filled with courses such as organic chemistry and cell biology, but I also needed to take a literature class to fulfill my general curriculum requirements. The only class that fit into my schedule was “Modern Arabic Literature and Culture.” I knew little about the Arab world then, but that soon changed. During the second week of class, the 9/11 attacks occurred. Our weekly discussions about Arab literature started to include our confusions about how the media were portraying the Arab world. What was the truth? When a classmate jokingly suggested that we take a field trip to the Middle East to uncover the reality for ourselves, our professor said, “Great idea!”
That “field trip” to Lebanon changed my life. While spending time with refugee families in Shatila camp, something shifted inside me. I had found my true calling: My purpose was to dedicate my life to the humanitarian sector. I could finally admit to myself that I wasn’t meant to spend my life in a genetics lab, because I honestly never felt authentically me in that environment. Instead, I needed to find the intersection of what I was good at and what I loved to do. Anything less would be cheating the world of my gifts. For me, that intersection was development work.
The funny thing about uncovering our true calling is that it’s usually more obvious than we think. Yet we’ll go to the extremes to convince ourselves that we’re meant to do something else—something more impressive or more practical. But if we allow ourselves to be brutally honest about what makes us come alive, our intuition provides the answer. I knew since the age of five that helping others was my thing. It’s why I volunteered non-stop, why I was profoundly affected when exposed to poverty abroad, and why I found myself skipping a second summer of genetics research at Oxford during high school in favor of working at an orphanage in Togo. The signs had been there all along.
The other funny thing about callings is that they don’t always end up unfolding exactly the way you think. I initially assumed my destiny was to be an aid worker. However, following a frustrating summer interning with Save the Children in East Africa and being exposed to the shocking inadequacies of the aid industry, I realized I was better suited to be an advocate for reforming international aid. After graduating from Duke with a Program II curriculum, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to Egypt, started my own educational organization focused on aid effectiveness, circumnavigated the world for a year shooting a ten-part film series on international aid, received a master’s degree from Harvard, worked as a polar photographer in the Arctic and Antarctica, and, most recently, finished writing a book on the realities of aid called Beyond Good Intentions. My life since graduation has been a beautiful adventure, thanks in large part to that seemingly random literature course I took at Duke.
So my advice to current students is, be open to the unexpected. Be willing to question your assumptions about what you’re meant to do with your life. Take time for self-growth and reflection. Forget about the expectations of others—it’s your life, not theirs. Uncover what you love, and keep in mind that wherever you experience joy and flow, that’s probably what your major should be. As Howard Thurman once said, “Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I started at Duke from a young age, as part of the TIP program, from seventh grade. While I always knew that I wanted to be at Duke, I didn't know what I wanted to learn. I started studying economics, but realized that wasn't where my heart was. What I was most curious to learn about at the time was the globalization taking place in the late 1990s. It was the first time I was hearing about foreign economies driving our own, and as a turban-wearing Sikh from North Carolina, how various cultures and communities influenced each other was particularly fascinating to me.
Duke gave me the ability to design a curriculum around international business and globalization, which is a “major” I designed myself as a part of Program II, under the guidance of Professor Robert Keohane, one of the leading minds in transnational relations.
This process was the first step to a level of empowerment that has led me to become a multi-time entrepreneur, and changed the course of my life. While at Duke, I received the support of the administration to start Students to Unite Duke, and applied for funding to organize social events that created diverse, multicultural, and fun environments on campus that helped break down traditional social barriers. Through a Duke travel grant, I was able to study how various club cultures in Europe could help facilitate more diverse communities and culture-sharing at the university. That experience partially led me to participating with the globally renowned Thievery Corporation as a musician myself, and on albums that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Since that time, that pursuit of understanding internationalization has led me around the world as an Internet entrepreneur, model, and musician. I’ve earned a law degree from Georgetown University, have studied at Oxford University, and am widely recognized as the world’s first Sikh model.
Duke's Program II encouraged me to explore things I truly believed in, and helped me develop skills that have proved invaluable in life, from raising financing, to creating proposals that bring an idea to life, to public speaking.
Today, I'm fortunate to have a wide variety of life experiences that are directly attributable to my time at Duke, and the incredible academic and social community it provides. Even more important, the freedom it gave me facilitated a truly amazing group of dozens of diverse friends from all walks of life, who to this day are as close to me as family.