Meena Venkataramanan talks about her interest in telling the stories of refugees and asylum seekers and exploring her own identity as an Asian American.
Storytelling and investigating how stories are told is where I wanted to focus. That is what I felt could teach me more about society than studying theoretical systems.Meena Venkataramanan
Meena Venkataramanan’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard combines her passion for journalism with her interest in exploring her own identity as an Asian American.
The thesis is a series of personal essays which she calls “metaphorical passages to India”. Meena’s parents are from India and Meena was born in the UK before moving to the US as a toddler. The family would travel to India often to visit relatives.
Meena  says: “My thesis has helped me to come to terms with a complex identity. Growing up it felt like I had to take sides. Was I American or Indian or could I be both? I realised that I could in fact be both and that it was up to me to strike a balance. Learning Tamil has also helped me realise this, that I can forge my own passages to India and that there is something richly unique in having this identity.”
As her confidence in her identity has increased, Meena has taken steps to empower her fellow South Asian Americans to get more involved in civic life.
At Harvard, she launched the South Asian Americans in Public Service organisation after realising that not many people who looked like her were interested in public service careers. “I want to change that,” she says. “I want to empower people to take it seriously.”
The organisation has highlighted the work of elected officials of South Asian descent, launched a journal of civic thought and been involved in voter registration initiatives. Many Americans of South Asian descent are not registered and there is low voter turnout. “I want to change that. It is not partisan work. I want them to have their voices heard,” says Meena, adding that Kamala Harris’ election as Vice President has been a huge catalyst for South Asian Americans to get involved in civic service in their communities.
During her time at Harvard she has also become involved in journalism through her interest in politics.
In her first semester she worked with a political journalist at the Washington Post who she met through Harvard’s Institute of Politics and who became a mentor to her. That led to a summer internship at ABC News after her first year where she “caught the journalism bug”. After her second year in 2019 she won a border journalism fellowship and headed home to Southern Arizona with a colleague to write multi-media border narratives and the two ended up publishing a newsletter and setting up a podcast. It was a year after the media had begun reporting on the separation of families and their children on the US/Mexico border. “It was a very gripping experience,” says Meena. “There were scenes that I will never forget.”
She went to one of the deadliest immigration detention centres in Southern Arizona and spoke to a Guatemalan asylum seeker who had been there a year. She crossed the border into Mexico to talk to asylum seekers and people who had been deported. One man had lived in the US for years and had been pulled over for a faulty tail light. He was asked for documentation to show he was in the US legally and was deported when he couldn’t produce it on the spot. When Meena interviewed him he was still in the same clothes he was wearing when he was deported. His whole family was in Arizona. Meena says she feels passionately about this work and would like to continue it.
Indeed her MPhil studies at the University of Cambridge, which she begins in the autumn, will focus on refugees’ and asylum seekers’ narratives in the US and UK. Her interest in the situation in the UK is partly personal, because she was born there, but also she was very aware of the links between Trumpism and the xenophobic Brexit discourse.
Meena’s interest in immigration is rooted in her childhood which involved moving between many different environments and trying to figure out who she was.
Born in East London, her family moved to the city environment of Pittsburgh when she was a toddler before decamping a couple of years later to the desert plains of South Arizona.
Her first school was in the less affluent, southern part of Tucson. Her fellow pupils were mostly Latino and Indigenous, and while she felt like “a brown person among other brown people”, the experience was also confusing for Meena as she grappled with her identity as an Asian American.
By third grade, Meena’s family had moved to the northern side of town which was mainly white. Meena describes this as “a culture shock”. “It was more obvious there that I was different,” she says. As her family were immigrants, there was a lot of learning about how the education system operated and understanding American English – her family spoke an Indian dialect at home. Meena loved learning and says she did her homework “with a religious fervour”. She read voraciously and won prizes for poetry, essay writing and public speaking.
At the time, her ambition was to be a doctor like her parents. It was at high school, where she was president of the debate club, that she realised that “English was my thing”, envisaging a potential career in law or political journalism. She applied to Harvard and explored both English and Government, thinking that the latter would give her access to political leaders. Six months in she opted for English. Government seemed too theoretical for her. She was drawn to people’s stories and what brought them together to act politically. “Storytelling and investigating how stories are told was where I wanted to focus. That was what I felt could teach me more about society than studying theoretical systems,” says Meena.
She sees her future in legal journalism, making the law more accessible to people and is interested in particular in immigration law and media law, especially the comparison between what is legally possible on social media and in print journalism.
She is very excited about becoming a Gates Cambridge scholar and says she owes her success to the support of her family. “My parents have always believed in me,” she says.