Sikh student at Whatcom Community College excels after escaping prejudice

On Sukhdip Singh’s first day at Whatcom Community College, a student walked by him on campus, smiled and said “hey.”

It was a simple gesture that meant a lot for the 20-year-old Sikh from Greece.

“In Greece I would not have experienced that, because of my race,” Singh said.

Since that day, Singh has flourished in his two years at Whatcom Community College as he works toward his goal of becoming a doctor. Along the way, he also hopes to alter misconceptions about people who, like him, wear a turban as part of their religion.

Singh was born in Greece. He lived in Australia, then India before moving back to Athens at age 12 with his mom, dad and sister. His family follows Sikhism, a monotheistic religion founded in India in the 15th century in which all men wear a turban. Singh’s grandparents live in Surrey, B.C., which led him to Whatcom Community College.

In 2008, Singh said Greece’s financial crisis caused many Greeks to become anti-immigrant and often racist toward people who had darker skin. One day when he was walking home, a group of men approached him and demanded to know where Singh was from, ready to attack him if he gave the wrong answer. The men let him go when Singh explained he was a Sikh. They were apparently looking for people from Pakistan. But Singh said other Sikhs weren’t so lucky.

He described his life at home as a “typical south Asian family living in a country where people are mostly white and Greek.” His dad is a taxi driver, and his mom is unable to work due to a medical disability.

Wherever he went in Greece, he said he felt harassed by people who stared and made racist comments in his direction.

When he lived in India briefly, Singh said he noticed people who needed medical assistance were treated “sometimes worse than animals.”

“People are not treated as they should be. There isn’t equal access to medicine (in India),” Singh said. “I want to get into that system and be influential.”

Since he’s been at Whatcom Community College, he has earned a 4.0 grade point average and has become active in student government. He was one of five students to receive the 2015 Transforming Lives Award from the Trustees Association of Community and Technical Colleges, which recognizes students across the state who have overcome barriers to achieve their college goals.

He said some people still believe anyone wearing a turban is a potential terrorist. He is currently organizing a Turban Awareness Day at the college that will occur in March to educate others about people who wear a turban for religious purposes.

In the classroom, teachers and students say Singh is thoughtful and supportive of others. One of Singh’s philosophy teachers at the college, Cathy Hagman, said he always goes beyond the class requirements.

“I admire him a lot,” Hagman said. “He’s just a very nice person, very intelligent, and I think we’re really lucky at Whatcom (Community College) to have him here as a student.”

Singh said his ambition comes from his desire to change his family’s situation. He wants to be a doctor because he has always wanted to help people who are struggling. He said his past experiences, along with the welcoming atmosphere at Whatcom Community College, have put him in a position to succeed.

“I used to complain many times about why I’m going through all these hardships, and then I realized that those experiences actually shaped me into the being I am today,” Singh said. “Those experiences make me who I am.”