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Q&A: Syracuse native Nina Davuluri discusses diversity, experiences as Miss America

As the first Indian American to receive the title of Miss America in 2014, Syracuse native Nina Davuluri received plenty of backlash, as many people took to social media to make negative comments about her ethnicity.

The experience only propelled Davuluri to continue a conversation about diversity, and she’ll be speaking at Syracuse University on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse III. Her talk, “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency,” is part of a series of events for Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The Daily Orange spoke with Davuluri about her experiences as Miss America and the work she’s doing to spread her message of cultural acceptance.

The Daily Orange: Why is it important to talk about these issues of diversity?

Nina Davuluri: I think there are many stereotypes associated not only with Asian-Americans or Indian Americans, but with quite a few different ethnicities. That’s really the heart of my platform, this idea of cultural competency. And it’s not just about addressing the different ethnicities. I think it’s also about addressing groups of people and the idea of inclusion, and finding a way to being able to communicate with one another in an open and honest manner.

The D.O.: How would you define cultural competency?

N.D.: It’s definitely having an open mind and being understanding and respectful of people’s backgrounds and beliefs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with everyone’s beliefs. That’s not ideal that everyone has to agree with everyone’s beliefs, or realistic even. I think it’s really about forming that open communication and asking questions. If you’re curious about something, I’ve always found that asking questions and learning from one another is great.

The D.O.: How has being Miss America helped you spread your message of diversity?

N.D.: I will say that quite a bit of my work and a majority of my platform work started even before I was Miss America. So I didn’t just wake one day and say, “I’m going to promote diversity.” … But also obviously, Miss America changed my life, and with a job like this, I had a voice and I could advocate for my platform nationally. SU will be my 37th, I believe, either the 37th or 38th college that I’ve spoken within the course of these past 18 months. My year ended technically in September, but I still feel very fortunate to be able to spread this message and talk to a lot of people because it’s so timely.

The D.O.: What’s it been like for you to travel to these colleges?

N.D.: I love it. It’s been my favorite place where I get to spread my message, and every campus is so unique, so different… And as much as I love sharing my story, I love hearing other people’s stories. It’s not just about me sitting there talking about my journey, and while I’m happy to share that, it’s really about looking forward to the conversation and the dialogue that happens after.

The D.O.: What did you learn from the backlash that you received as Miss America?

N.D.: So I can touch upon this in a couple different ways. I was prepared in the sense that I had experienced very similar backlash when I won Miss New York. It was initially shocking because it’s supposed to be the melting pot of the world, essentially. It seemed almost intolerable for people to be making remarks like this…

What’s even more uncanny about all of this (is) about 30 years ago, Vanessa Williams won Miss America, also a former Miss Syracuse. She had received a very similar response and backlash, and here we are 30 years later, seeing how much our country has evolved, and it’s still a similar response but in a different light and conversation. And so this year, what’s important is to take that initial negative reaction and turn it into a positive conversation.

People will always say that for every negative comment I received, I got hundreds — if not thousands — of positive encouragement. And that’s really great. I always tie it back to the fact that it’s not just me. There are so many people across the country resonating with this message.

 

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