Womxn on the Move: Serene Singh

Image Description: Serene Singh wearing a red floor-length dress and a silver crown on her head; around her shoulder is a sash with the title ‘National All-American Miss’, and in her right arm she is holding a bouquet of white flowers. 

To end our ‘Womxn on the Move’ series, our final fantastic interviewee is Serene Singh who first came to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. She is now pursuing a DPhil in Criminology and balances her studies with running a number of different organisations, including Hello South Asians, the National Sikh Youth Program, the Oxford Bhangra Society, and the Rhodes Interfaith Alliance. If that wasn’t enough she has competed in a number of prestigious pageants in the USA and has recently won the 2020-2021 National All-American Miss title, the world’s largest pageant!

Considering her incredibly busy schedule, I was thrilled that she made time to talk about everything going on in her life so far: studying criminology, her experience of being a pageant winner, the importance of community projects and what she sees herself doing in the new year.

Can you tell us about your background and what influences have shaped your life so far?

Sure! Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, I am deeply connected to my home state in the United States. I am a proud South Asian Indian American and Sikh woman who love what many of my friends call the 5 P’s – Public Speaking, Pageantry, Public Service, Punjabi Dance, and Painting. Of course, this list is not exhaustive by any means, but I do love how it showcases a passion for skills and talents in multiple arenas. I know I grew up being asked to choose if I want to be smart or beautiful, talented, and scholarly, etc. Dispelling myths I was told for so many years and challenging biases I have had due to my socialization continues to be one of my greatest inspirations for what I do in life and the narrative I share with others! Whether it be delivering academic keynotes or modeling, gaining a wealth of privilege as a Rhodes Scholar or mentoring girls in low-income villages in India, I know that my life and my journey are eye-opening and eyebrow-raising to many. However, for me, each of these new facets unveils another aspect of who I am and why I care to everyone around me and I think that is so powerful in a world dictated by limitations and restrictions of what can be done, should be done, and by who.

You came to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. What was your experience like as a student at the University of Oxford?

I love the University of Oxford. I remember clearly on my very first day arriving to Christ Church, my college, I was offered help by 8 different individuals to transport my suitcases across the road to help me move in. As an American, I remember looking around my bags to see if there was any sign or language like “help this petite Indian girl carry bags 3x her size!” because I was just not used to having people go out of their way to make sure a random stranger was OK. I do think that small memory was just is a testament to the type of people I have found at Oxford overall – kind and eager to serve others.

Having studied for the MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government, I felt incredibly lucky every day to be alongside world leaders and public servants who are experts in so many disciplines and career fields. Although I believe every person – including myself – feels like an “imposter” at some point or another during their time at Oxford which is a difficult aspect to navigate, I think it also has helped me grow as a student with my work ethic, discipline, and attitude in critical ways. I am certain I will continue to apply those “hidden” lessons because of Oxford’s exposure and diversity – especially in the MPP programme – for the rest of my life.

Perhaps that is exactly what makes Oxford so different from any place in the world — as much as you will be challenged to learn academically, the environment and the people will challenge you just as much (if not more) to learn for life… how to be a better leader, a better champion for causes you value, and most importantly, a better human for the world.

You’re currently pursuing a Doctoral degree in Criminology. What fostered your interest in this subject and where would you like to take your degree upon completing it?

I have always been passionate about law and justice. I remember as a young girl always having a fascination for what was going on in the legal world, where were the gaps in the justice system, and how I could play a unique role in challenging the wrongs I saw in the world around me. For instance, from junior high onwards, I was involved in competitive speaking and debating across the country. It became second nature for me to continue researching and arguing for changes in the legal system and I wanted to continue that trajectory. Still, one of my dreams is to end violence against all communities but particularly religious communities as well as women. This dream depends on challenging biases and uplifting oppressed voices. My American-centric studies limit my worldview of criminal justice in certain ways that I am excited about challenging. I am eager to learn about criminal justice issues impacting Sikhs and women, beyond what I know to be true.

For my research, I am studying women on death row in the US criminal justice system. Part of my interest in this specific subject began when I started my non-profit with at-risk women, many of whom have been discriminated against in our legal system, but the other part is my faith which has challenged me to humanize those who I am taught to “hate.” I remember in my middle school being told by a teacher when I asked a question about a man who was recently released as having been ‘innocent’ after several years in my state that regardless of this man, “everyone” should “despise all people who were behind bars” – no exception. To serve in positions that target broad issues like hate, I must contest my prejudices on topics like policing, which are influenced by personal experiences, rather than by analysis and theory. Moreover, I am interested to learn about whether or not “shaming” in criminology and policy translates into long-term positive results and if not, what can be changed so we center justice around love instead of shame. Justice systems are plagued by bias, injustice, and deep-rooted hatred. So, for me, it is important to humanize and share the experiences of “justice” of some of the most feared women, and even hated, in our country. Studying Criminology and Criminal Justice at Oxford University gives me the knowledge, tools, and resources to learn the issues, so I can courageously find solutions that protect all communities.

Following my Doctoral degree, I plan on gaining professional experience in the United States, continuing my work with women in the justice system and other communities that have not been served justice or equality. My ultimate goal is to become a Supreme Court Justice.

Congratulations on winning the 2020-2021 National All-American Miss title, as part of the world’s largest pageant! What inspired you to start competing in pageants? How does it feel to have won the award, especially as one of the first South Asian contestants to win?

Thank you so much, it truly is a dream come true for me (as cliché as it sounds!) If you don’t believe me, watch the video on YouTube – I quite literally started choking on stage that is how many tears were coming out of my eyes and how inconsistent my breathing was when my name was called!

I have many exciting goals for this year to work on behalf of girls and women across the country amidst a global pandemic and I am 100% prepared to dedicate my whole self to lending my voice to causes that matter most to me. I am immensely grateful to all those in my community who helped me reach this point in life – it truly takes a village, and I am lucky beyond words for mine, especially my mother – the very backbone to everything I am and inevitably, everything I have achieved in life.

In terms of representation and what that means to me knowing how rare it is to see women who look like me or who have experiences like mine winning these titles, it is something I take very seriously. Of course, I am always most proud of where I come from and the community I represent, but I also know girls and women across this country and the globe do not have access to the same opportunities I have had in my life to be where I am today. That very notion is what motivates me to give what I have been given in meaningful and tangible ways constantly in life. This crown and banner are a microphone, a platform, and a chance to reach thousands of individuals to amplify the work I do and serve in ways that have positive impacts on the lives of others lasting long after my year as a national titleholder. Right now, working on a project to raise awareness and funds through KhalsaAid for the farmers protesting in Punjab and across India. I recognize that while my South Asian identity is a rarity in pageantry and often a “first,” that comes with a responsibility to share who I am and the community I represent – even those back in India itself where my roots lie! The glam and rhinestones are undoubtedly fun, but the work to serve begins now and I am so excited for what is ahead.

Part of what this title also represents is a lesson I wish I knew growing up that I care deeply about sharing with youth – the importance of being multi-disciplined and proud of it. So often girls are told to pick one thing and only one thing to be good at when really, I think this world needs to see all of our many talents and gifts for the next generation to grow up seeing themselves as nothing less than unstoppable. No one needs to ever dim their light to make others more comfortable. That is a very special message I always share with youth I work with – be fearless with who you are and how you show up, always.

And like many women who are the “first” in spaces, I might be the first, but I promise I’ll make sure I’m not the last.

What misconceptions do you think people have about pageants? What would you like people to know about them?

I joined pageantry 7 years ago in 2013 because I did NOT like pageantry and I had a clear bias against the women competing in pageants, like so many people out there. However, in my sophomore year of high school, I received an invite in the mail to join the Colorado pageant. Although I will admit I initially scoffed at the idea of me – a tomboy who never wore heels or makeup – competing in a pageant, I decided to try it out to challenge a strong bias I had against the activity.

Clearly, I fell in love with pageantry. I have been competing for the past seven years and for me, trying out pageantry was the best decision I ever made. The truth is, most people only see the “show” aspect of pageantry, which is only the very last part of a competition week and only 1% of what it means to be a titleholder and the impact they have on real issues and actual causes. Pageants have become some of the largest fundraisers globally for causes, have been the platform from which women have founded nonprofits, fortune 500 companies, you name it! And these are just some of the facts I have learned over the years.

Perhaps what I love most about pageantry apart from the friendships and relationships you make with women who are also just as passionate about doing more in the world and being the best version of themselves, is the confidence I have gained and seen countless women gain.

It is tricky to explain just on text but when I look back to my 13-year-old self who felt ashamed of my Punjabi Indian heritage, embarrassed by my features and accent different than my peers, and even unworthy of my dreams because of what I understood about expectations for “success” from society. Pageantry helped me see all of those aspects that I tried to hide and felt ashamed of as my greatest assets and strengths… that if I was able to find power in those traits I felt would forever limit and stop me, I would truly be on that path to growing into the best version of myself and sustaining that version long-term for my many goals outside of pageantry, as well. I learned three main aspects there: 1) instead of shaming myself for my dissimilarities, embracing my unique attributes empowers me to be confident and courageous, 2) that my voice is my greatest gift and using it can inspire countless others to do the same because someone out there needs to hear what only you can say and 3) pageantry, in my experience, is completely about empowering women to allow their inner beauty to radiate wholly and challenging them to never lose conviction in their gifts.

Pageantry and the lessons I have gained from it have become an integral and vital part of how I show up in the world – from my academics to my dreams to my public service engagements. From winning the world’s most prestigious academic award the Rhodes Scholarship to establishing my own nonprofit to empower women survivors to transform pain into power, pageantry has provided me with tools to make a difference, skills to serve those around me, and memories to last a lifetime!

Following your win, what would you like to achieve with this new platform?

As mentioned, many of the goals I am working on right now having achieved this honor are in the works and will be announced as soon as more details are figured out in light of the pandemic and the best approaches available to me! What I can promise is a focus on three core missions: 1) an increase in accessibility of the skills and tools I have gained through pageantry to girls and women across the country 2) a focus on youth empowerment, education, and resilience training across not just the United States but the world through an effort by many global changemakers (many I have met at Oxford, as well!) and 3) service for every opportunity I can fit in my schedule. I believe, as a nonprofit owner myself, there are more than enough causes and there are more than enough resources and funds out there. However, what is lacking is the linkages between those two – people who have platforms and can lend their voices to causes are just that perfect linkage and I see so much impact in just shining a light on the incredible work already being done in my local community, across my cultural and religious community, and much more broadly as an American and a global citizen too.

However, I am also passionate about not giving up on activities and projects I have been a part of before the pageant or before this national title. The truth is all of these “activities” helped shape me into the same individual who now has an official job as a National Queen, but that does not mean I am a different Serene than before. I care about authenticity and being true to what matters to me so one of the many service projects I plan to expand and grow this year is my nonprofit which was founded after I lost a dear friend, a survivor, to suicide.

Like a growing number of women survivors, my friend suffered from clinical body dysmorphia. At the time in 2016, I was working in the United States Senate on violence policy, human trafficking law reform, and rape/sexual assault policies. I noticed women survivors were never in-charge of the settings where changes impacting survivors were created. Moreover, the very women who I found resilient and strong, described themselves as shameful, unworthy of fighting for their dreams, often believing they were undeserving of embracing living, and of life itself.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for at-risk women in the United States, women who unduly battle body dysmorphia. With mental health stigmatization, societal shaming of survivors, and a lack of tools for at-risk women to gain confidence, The Serenity Project nonprofit uniquely challenges increasing rates of body dysmorphia and suicide among women. TSP empowers “at-risk” women by challenging 1) unhealthy beauty standards 2) the rising number of suicide attempts and 3) the lack of support, tools, and skills survivors receive to grow through the trauma they have gone through. Transforming pain into power is what TSP is all about.

TSP begins with a fashion show followed by a 12-month curriculum and mentorship program. TSP’s goal with all these components is to help these women discover and use the wings they have always had. By crafting shows to grow their self-esteem, tools to transform their pain, and resources to champions their stories, TSP aims to impact women for not just their time in the program, but for the rest of their lives. TSP partners with hundreds of brands including Victoria Secret PINK and the Love Your Natural Self Foundation, is connected to 100 volunteers globally, hosts tens of workshops, is the featured nonprofit in “The Serenity Documentary” recently premiered, and will continue its mission to reach at-risk women and remind them of their innate power and beauty.

Our virtual show is expected to be set in February of 2021 and we are always looking for support and ideas for going forward. Please do check out our website at www.theserenityproject.org to see the Documentary or read more about the project!

When you’re not studying or winning pageants, you can be found running a number of societies and foundations, that you have founded, including Hello South Asians, the National Sikh Youth Program, the Oxford Bhangra Society, and the Rhodes Interfaith Alliance. What encouraged you to start these initiatives and what would you like to achieve with them? How do you see this important work evolving in the future?

Yes! Well, I was raised with one core belief: the only difference between myself and anyone I am working to serve and help in life is…circumstance. That very philosophy has helped guide every project and initiative. A question I regularly ask myself is: with the privileges and opportunities I have been gifted in life, how can I make it just a bit easier for others out there to reach where I am? Whether it be for my non-profit organization empowering at-risk women with the skills and tools I have gained through pageantry and modeling, or through my work with Hello South Asians where I strive to utilize the five languages I know in order to connect South Asians globally in meaningful and transformational ways throughout this pandemic, every single thing I do can be traced back to that same question trying to be answered by me!

With so many exciting opportunities coming your way, what are your future goals? What projects are you looking forward to doing in the new year?

2021 is super exciting to me, and obviously, the world as we are finally moving past 2020! Since this new opportunity has been awarded to me amidst a global pandemic, I know my year as a titleholder is inevitably going to look much more different than it did for previous national pageant winners in the USA. Traveling, speaking in schools, launching large-scale events are usually the focus of national winners, but I am cognizant of the reality of the world around me and the timing of this opportunity and the risk of safety for people across the country.

That just means one thing: I will need to just get creative this upcoming year! I have spent most of December with my family and thinking about where I want to lend my voice, how I can serve best during this time, and what goals I have for this year will be able to live past and impact people far beyond just my year – those are the ones I am focusing on! You’ll have to stay tuned to see exactly what they are in terms of the projects specific to this year as a titleholder! Separately, of course, I have started my DPhil in Criminology at Oxford, am gearing up for the non-profit’s upcoming 2021 cohort of mentors and mentees to start onboarding in January 2021, National Sikh Youth Program’s 1st nationwide Summit at a surprise location, countless more students to take on for public speaking classes I hope, and I’m even working on a very special project called “Road to the Rhodes” to help students across the world gain insight and access to resources largely unavailable to low-income and low-resourced areas for something as prestigious and life-changing as the Rhodes Scholarship.

My social media handles are: serene.singh and my website is serenesingh.com so if you are reading this and have ideas, questions, comments, that would be the best way to get in touch with me!

Quick-fire questions:

What is something every student should know?

Students are often stressed and overwhelmed with everything related to education, which is very unfortunate because of the toll it takes on our mental, emotional and physical well-being. As such, I always tell students I work with that the #1 thing to “go” when our body and mind feel like we need to stop certain parts of our lives to be a better student is… SERVICE! With that in mind, keep service around you 24/7. It is one of the reasons I knew founding a non-profit would be difficult, but so important for me. If you’re able to keep community service in your life, your brain is forced to choose from other areas that are less critical to your emotional well-being (i.e. social media, etc.) and it has been researched to be the key to success for many students!

What is something every student should do?

Every student should do 1 thing outside of school that makes them happy, 1 thing outside of school that brings them closer to people they are inspired by and 1 thing outside of school that serves others.

What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?

Every student should read GRIT by Angela Duckworth – it applies not just to school but to relationships, to career, life, everything.

Every student should watch the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots. Yes, it’s in Hindi but subtitles will get the message across just as powerfully, I promise!

Every student should listen to their mom, their biggest mentor, and the words of a song that has helped them through their toughest times in life.

Image courtesy of Kyle Cournoyer