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A group of South Asian students participate in a discussion in which they shared experiences of support and alienation from their communities as part of the forum "Bridging the South Asian Gap: Breaking Down the Stereotypes." [Michael Lupoli/The Dai

There was free Indian food, a student-led Muslim prayer and a strong desire to implement change Saturday afternoon in Houston Hall.

The three all coincided in a forum -- the first of its kind -- entitled "Bridging the South Asian Gap: Breaking Down the Stereotypes." The event aimed to confront the misperception of uniformity among South Asians while at the same time uniting the various communities.

"The one thing I'm struck by is the perception from the outside that Asians are homogenous -- and they're not," Penn alumna and forum facilitator Najma Davis said.

It was in light of their differences that students from each of the eight sponsoring groups -- the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, Bengali Students Association, Hindu Students Council, Muslim Students Association, Penn Pakistan Society, Penn Sikh Organization, Sangam and the South Asia Society -- came together for the first time to establish similarities.

"This was not the work of one group," Engineering junior Amin Venjara said. "It was very shared."

"If you're in South Asia, no one uses the term South Asian -- that's like saying North American," he added. "But as minorities, it's important for us to unite."

The event aimed at unity by mixing students from each of the participating organizations into small discussion tables. Participants were then asked to write down experiences both when they were supported and alienated as South Asians.

"One thing that's immediately obvious is that the stories are powerful," Programs for Awareness in Culture and Education coordinator Nathan Smith said.

"We did a pilot of the activity, and there wasn't one student that hadn't been approached... as if they didn't belong [in the United States] on the basis of having brown skin and looking South Asian," the Graduate School of Education faculty member added.

The stories unified the diverse groups of South Asians because they had faced many of the same problems.

"Stereotypes are something we all face," Engineering junior Jay Patel said.

Yet, as the event agenda made clear, the goal of the forum was to identify not only problems, but also solutions.

"The purpose today is to think of some steps we can take... to create more positive, supportive experiences; fewer negative, alienating experiences and a greater cohesion among South Asians at Penn," the agenda read.

The proposed steps varied in scope and practicality from the expansion of co-sponsored South Asian events to the impeachment of President Bush.

Calling many of the ideas "very positive and feasible actions that can be taken," College senior Trina DasGupta complimented the event for its broad reach.

"We got to delve into the deeper issue, since we had a common starting ground," she said. "It hasn't been done before, so it's great to see."

Many at the forum had this same optimism. Wharton senior Ambar Bhattacharyya noted that with effort, stereotypes can be overcome.

"With any stereotype, it takes a trendsetter to break it," he said.

And it was as trendsetters that the co-sponsors of Saturday's event established the first cross-organization University effort at South Asian unity.

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