A rare opportunity
Submitted by tdemel on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 12:29pm
Alumna dedicated to building relationships between India and KSU celebrates Hindu festival at the White House
KENNESAW, Ga. (Dec. 2, 2013) – When it comes to making connections, Rifka Mayani (MBA, ’97) is always looking for new opportunities.
When she is not working on her day job as associate director of Enterprise Systems and Services at Kennesaw State University, Mayani is busy with a myriad of activities designed to promote Indian culture throughout the community. In just 17 years since she came from India to Kennesaw State for an MBA degree, Mayani has been identifying new avenues for building relationships.
“I always wanted a connection between India and the U.S.,” Mayani said. “On campus, my mission has been to put India on KSU’s map and KSU on India’s map – in whatever form I can make that happen.”
That mission has put her at the heart of events in the Indian American community in Atlanta and even earned her a recent invitation to the White House in Washington, D.C., where she was among a handful of eminent Indian Americans from across the U.S. celebrating “Diwali.”
Communicating through dance
The center of her mission has been the love for performing Bharathanatyam, an Indian classical dance-art form. Trained in the dance form from an early age of 6 under the renowned Guru Shri Kalyansundaram Pillai, Mayani had the opportunity for numerous public performances in the U.S., including her presentations for consul generals, at the Unveiling of the Sari at the High Museum of Art, for all the Continuing Education deans in the University System of Georgia, and even at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
“It’s a very beautiful and intricate dance form,” Mayani said.
The dance has been a part of the Kennesaw State community since she was a student and Akanmu Adebayo, then director of the Institute for Global Initiatives, asked her to perform on campus. In front of a packed house at the Stillwell Theatre, Mayani presented a 2½ hour solo Bharatnatyam performance with complete hand-designed, full-stage props.
Now she brings her love for Bharatnatyam dance to jazz, ballet, and tap KSU-dance students, as she teaches the Indian dance class every fall through the KSU College of the Arts and also operates a small, private dance academy in Atlanta. Many of the students she trains have performed at events throughout the community.
Mayani is a frequent speaker to classrooms throughout Kennesaw State as well as schools around Atlanta, about Indian art and culture.
“Dance is at the core of those talks, and then I diversify into wherever they need me to go,” she said.
That emphasis on promoting cooperation keeps her focused on her goals.
“I play two sides – when I’m out in the community, I talk about KSU,” she said. “From the KSU perspective, I talk about dance and culture – those are aspects I’ve been able to help in.”
On campus, Mayani has been instrumental as a voice for global learning. She was one of the first to send out a call for creating the India Faculty and Staff Association, and subsequently she has been heavily involved in the annual Indian Cultural Festival.
“It’s our way of showcasing the Indian culture to KSU,” she said.
The festival, which just celebrated its fourth year in November, has drawn attendees from across the region, including the first Indian consul general for the Southeastern United States, in Atlanta.
As part of her outreach efforts, Mayani worked with the Center for Student Leadership and the Coles College of Business on developing connections with schools in India. Along with other Kennesaw State representatives, she visited five institutions of higher education in India to establish relationships for “creating leadership.”
“If we create synergies between student leaders globally, they will become better partners in the future,” Mayani said of the exchange program.
Mayani has also worked closely with the Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State, providing artistic expertise at several events during the past five years, which just recently earned her an appreciation award issued by the Institute at its fifth anniversary celebrations. She has also served as the vice-chair for SAUPO (Symposium on Asia-USA Partnership Opportunities) since its inception.
Mayani has expertise in a variety of fields, which have given her many new opportunities over the years. In addition to her MBA from Kennesaw State in 1997, Mayani has a Bachelor’s in Law from Government Law College and a B.A. in political science from St. Xavier’s University of Mumbai, India.
Her work in Enterprise Systems grew from a student assistantship that started in the KSU ITS labs. She worked her way up to assistant director for training and student support before taking a full-time faculty position for two years teaching Business Information Systems Management in the Coles College of Business. For the past five years, she has been the associate director for Enterprise Systems, where she oversees a large portfolio that includes software development, system implementations and integrations for the the Kennesaw State campus.
A rare opportunity
Mayani and her family – her husband, Viren, and two daughters, Hansinee and Nishtha – are quite active in the Indian American community in Atlanta and nationwide. Viren is on several boards, including the Asian American Heritage Foundation, the Georgia Symphony Orchestra besides a few others and will start his term as President of the Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce in January 2014.
“We do whatever we can to give back to the community and use the talents we have,” Mayani said.
Both were heavily involved as liaisons for athletes during the Atlanta Paralympic Games in 1996 and then again during the Special Olympics World Games in Raleigh, N.C., three years later.
Recognized for their work with the Asian American Diaspora, the couple was invited to the White House Diwali Celebrations by Hon. Gautam Raghavan, the White House Public Engagement Advisor, for the event in early November 2013. The two were among a handful of eminent Indian Americans to join an elite group of 175 to participate in the sacred and revered celebration, hosted by first lady Michelle Obama.
The event celebrating the Hindu festival of lights included members of the Obama administration, White House staffers, decorated officers and their families.
During her remarks, Obama reflected on the festival’s traditions. “Diwali is a time for celebration... It’s a time to come together with friends and family, often with dancing and good food. But Diwali is also a time for contemplation and reflection. It’s a time for us to think about our obligations to our fellow human beings, particularly those who are less fortunate than we are.”
The formal festivities included Obama lighting a traditional Diya, or lamp, in the Blue Room of the White House. A reception followed in the State Room with traditional music and strictly vegetarian food, in keeping with the auspiciousness.
“It was an extreme honor for us,” Mayani said. “We felt like we were royalty. They were very deliberate to ensure we had a good time. It was so tastefully done – just wonderful.”
Mayani also took time to make new relationships and meet with several “movers and shakers” in the Indian American community, including Kiran Ahuja, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; Gautam Raghavan, the White House Public Engagement Advisor; and Nakul Dev Mahajan, a top choreographer of the “So You Think You Can Dance” television show.
For Mayani, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity gave her another chance to fulfill her mission of putting KSU on the map.
– Scott Wiltsee