Kamala Nayar teaches Asian studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a position she’s held since 2001. Originally from Montreal, Nayar received her nursing license in 1988 and worked as a registered nurse until 2004.
In 1991, Nayar earned her BA in religious studies, followed by her Ph.D in South Asian religions in 1999. She continued practicing nursing while attending McGill University for both degrees. Nayar moved to British Columbia for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria before teaching at KPU in 2001. Between 2011 and 2014, she held the KPU Chancellor’s Research Chair.
Born to a Punjabi father and an American mother, Nayar’s desire to understand her roots inspires her research.
When did you join the KPU community and why?
I joined in 2001 on a contract basis. I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship, which was based at the University of Victoria, but my research was actually in the Lower Mainland. My postdoctoral was a social anthropological study on the Sikh community in the Lower Mainland. I was engaging with Surrey’s Sikh community, and that’s how I came across KPU. I was fortunate to have gotten work, and it evolved into an actual position over time.
What is your favourite story of your time at KPU?
I’ve been here for over 20 years. I have so many stories, it’s hard to think of one. The stories that I remember are when you cross paths with former students, and they remember something you’ve said or a story you shared. Recently, I had an interesting encounter with a student at Starbucks on Robson Street in Vancouver. I gave him my name, and as he was writing it on the cup, he says, ‘Are you a professor at KPU?’ I go, ‘Yes, how do you know?’ And he goes, ‘I recognize your voice.’ On Microsoft Teams during online learning, I didn’t use the camera with my students. He remembered me just by my voice, and that surprised me.
I have another memory of being in class and a student telling me, ‘Oh, I’m taking this class because my mom took it and recommended it.’ I felt so old, but when you cross paths with former students and they share things like that, it brings me a lot of joy.
What is something that you’d like to say to people new to the community?
Take advantage of the fact that classes are capped at 35. You can really benefit from engaging with your instructor in a way that you don’t get in the larger universities. You can get guidance and support by building relations with your instructors. It doesn’t hurt to enjoy the student experience, so take advantage of the opportunities that come with being a student.
KPU offers different support through the Learning Centre, the library, and the Kwantlen Student Association, so don’t feel shy accessing those. I remind students in my classes that you pay tuition not to just sit in my class, take a course, and get the credits. It’s also paying into all the support that the institution provides, and they should take advantage of that.
I’ve heard from students that the Global Buddy Program, for exchange and visiting students, is very helpful. If you’re a new international student, you have a buddy who has been at KPU for a while to mentor you as you get integrated into university education.
What are you working on right now?
I’m going up north to Prince Rupert. I previously published a story on the Punjabi communities up north. I looked at lumber, forestry, and the salmon cannery industries. I was engaging with Indigenous people, and from that an Elder asked me to help him share his story of surviving residential school in a 2014 journal.
My community engagement got disrupted because of COVID-19, so I haven’t been there for a number of years. I’m going to reconnect with the various people and communities I know there. At the back of my mind, I have a project I’d like to do on the All Native Basketball Tournment.
Out of all my experiences, going up north, connecting and engaging with the Indigenous Elders has been the most meaningful. Their approach is different. In academia, we think a Ph.D is a very big accomplishment. But the Elders I’ve met are more interested to know about who you are as a person than your degree. When I went to do the project on the residential school survivor, I followed research ethics and board directives. As they signed a community engagement contract, one of the Elders looks up, laughing, and goes ‘White man paper trail.’ I tried not to burst out laughing. It just shows that you’re entering a space that’s very different than the one you’re used to. Your preconceived notions are challenged, and it makes you a stronger person.
What is something you would like people to know about you?
I’ve experienced a lot of different labels. If I had to mention a label of who I am, I would use the word ‘humanitarian.’ I take my work seriously, but I don’t really take myself seriously. It’s probably something that’s come from taking care of people who are dying. You know what’s important, and that’s shaped the way I see the world.
I’m 57, and I find sometimes people see older people as cynical. But I’m starting to appreciate that as a long, historical record you have when you get older. You see things in a different way because you have that historical memory. When I engaged with Elders up north, I really started to appreciate the Indigenous practice of sitting with Elders and learning with Elders because they have stories and teachings younger generations don’t have. That’s what makes older people so valuable. What determines what we qualify as wisdom? I think we shouldn’t be so quick to discredit Elders as outdated. We, as people, can learn so much when we take the time to sit and listen.