What matters to you most and why?
(Stanford Business School Application Essay Excerpts, 2008)
If you Google my full name, Harpreet Singh Walia, you will see dozens of listings for men of Indian descent, many of whom wear a turban. When you meet me in person, you will encounter an Indian woman whose speech possesses a hint of a Southern accent.
To resolve this paradox, you must view my name in a religious and historical context. The tenth Guru of the Sikhs created universal middle names for all Sikh men and women in the hopes of ending caste distinction. Yet these designations produced a rigid gender division. Men were assigned the middle name Singh—meaning lion or warrior—and women were given the middle name Kaur—meaning princess. My parents, Sikh immigrants from India, came to America with few dollars and a hunger for opportunity. My mother—whose arranged marriage at twenty to my father was a substitute for higher education and a catalyst for a better life—wanted intellectually assertive and financially independent daughters. To her, the middle name Singh inferred strength, fearlessness and determination. Acutely aware of gender hierarchies, my parents chose a masculine first and middle name to showcase these traditionally male attributed qualities in me. Pree, shortened from Harpreet, became my family Indian nickname chosen by my mother. My name matters the most to me because it not only represents the past cross cultural struggles of women—including my mother—in male egocentric cultures but also the current opportunities and ceilings that a new generation of women face today.
But for most of my childhood and early adolescence, I shunned such explanations and rejected my given name. In fact, I believed that my parents wanted to torture me. Growing up in racially divisive New Orleans and rural Mississippi, I wanted to fit socially constructed norms, and I viewed my name—the source of my identity—as a limitation. So early in grade school, I created some clever nicknames and they stuck. Harper became my American name and I designated the t at the end of my full name as a silent letter to give it a French feminine twist. I even shortened my middle name to the initial S.
It wasn't until I left home for college that I finally began to understand my mother's choice in name. Through my undergraduate studies at Northwestern University, I developed a passion for advocating women's rights and equality. By analyzing and researching women's contributions to political history and critiquing gender dynamics, I was able to comprehend the obstacles that women, across cultures and continents, faced in order to combat subjugation and injustice. Outside the classroom, I found my calling promoting women's causes across campus. I held a leadership position within my sorority where I directed my sorority's recruitment evaluation process. As a Judicial Board appointee, I helped govern Northwestern women's Pan-Hellenic Organization by managing student violations and infractions.
Consequently, when my college graduation date approached, I knew that I wanted to start the next chapter of my life working for an organization that promoted women in positions of leadership. I got my chance when EMILY's List—the nation's largest political action committee dedicated to electing pro choice Democratic women to positions in government—offered me one of its coveted spots in its campaign training and placement program. I spent two intense weeks at an EMILY's List camp learning the fundamentals of campaign management. Ready to put my newly honed skills to use, I was sent to Flagstaff, Arizona to work as a fundraiser for a highly targeted Congressional race. Although Election Night yielded a disappointing loss for my team, these initial experiences on the campaign trail inspired me to make a lasting change in the political system.
I was able to capitalize on my mission by working at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in Washington D.C. It was in our nation's capital where I helped fund the fight to elect a Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress. For three fiscal quarters, I worked aggressively to surpass the DCCC's financial goals and gave the committee ammunition to effectively impact contested races. I believe that my efforts helped Nancy Pelosi break a glass ceiling in history as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Although my career as a political fundraiser brought me out West to Silicon Valley, I have not forgotten my initial objective to help women become active in traditionally male-dominated industries. I currently serve as Executive Director of a political action committee, the California Leadership Committee (CLC) whose mission supports the next generation of state and local Democratic candidates in California. In this position, I have mentored and promoted minority and female candidates that typically have had a difficult time fundraising. To support these candidates on a grander scale, I organized a CLC political boot camp in which over half the participants were women.
I have spent a good portion of my life running from the marker of my identity, but my academic, professional and personal experiences over the past eight years have steered me on a self reflective journey challenging an inadequate social status quo. My mother gave me a great gift twenty-five years ago and I plan on utilizing the attributes of this gift—strength, determination and resolve—to achieve my future aspirations.