Name: Harpreet Kaur
School/grade level: Freshman, Forest Hills Eastern High School
Passion: Building bridges among faith communities
Forest Hills — Harpreet Kaur has a passion for connecting with others of different faiths. She said “yes” when Zahabia Ahmed-Usmani, program manager at the Kaufman Institute for Interfaith Understanding, asked her to introduce Valarie Kaur (no relation) at a February event at Grand Valley State University. Valarie Kaur is a well-known author of “See No Stranger: A memoir and manifesto of revolutionary love”. The women share more than just a last name; both are Sikh, a faith tradition rooted in service and equality.
The book’s message resonated with Harpreet as she listened to the author’s online presentations about welcoming all. “(Valarie) was such a good speaker. I wish I could be like her,” the freshman thought.
How old were you when building bridges among people of different faiths became something you wanted to pursue? What’s the story there?: “My grandparents have always believed in helping people, and so have my parents and family. Most are doctors. I like doing good things for others. It makes me feel good, too.”
She found out about the Kaufman interfaith Leadership Scholars from her dad. This is her first year participating in this group that helps youth build bridges to help communities value, respect, and love all. The group of scholars meets every other Sunday and includes students from many faiths.
“I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about other faiths — and by how many similarities there are,” she said. “And it’s fun!”
She’s learned a lot about herself, too. “I’m always trying to better myself. I’ve always been really shy.” So, she decided to accept the opportunity to practice public speaking by introducing Valarie Kaur at the GVSU event — a clear indication of her drive to improve her own leadership skills.
A few related accomplishments: Harpreet has participated in Model UN and ran successfully for student council in eighth grade at Forest Hills Eastern Middle School. She’ll also be presenting at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago this August. She and her fellow interfaith scholars will be choosing their topic, with guidance from Ahmed-Usmani.
While Harpreet may see herself as shy, Ahmed-Usmani sees the leadership qualities in her: “Since the first day I met her, she has been joyful in the way she engages with the group and how earnestly she learns, works and plays with her peers. She is a powerful young woman with the ability to disarm the most guarded and to persuade others to follow her lead.”
Is there a teacher who has had a big impact? Harpreet’s eighth-grade history teacher, Jim Cross at Forest Hills Eastern Middle School, has had a big influence on her thinking. She said he loves to tell stories and let students lead their own learning. In his Liberty and Justice elective, she reports that he taught students not to judge others and to get to know others’ stories.
Do you plan to pursue this professionally? Harpreet would like to become an anesthesiologist, or maybe a lawyer. But while this freshman may still be sorting out possible career paths, she is certain about her own hope for interfaith understanding: “If we can be open-minded, we can find connection.”
Other hobbies or interests: It seems there is not a sport Harpreet hasn’t tried, from basketball and ballet to skating, skiing, soccer and swimming. Right now, her sports’ energy is focused on tennis. She is taking classes outside of school, and she hopes to make the school team at upcoming try-outs.
The biggest lesson you have learned from your involvement in this is… “You never know what others are going through. Be open-minded. Hear other people’s side.”