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New UNC student organization uplifts Tamil culture and language at UNC

Junior Nasiha Haja Rizwan, president of Tamil Student Organization, poses for a portrait outside of Gerrard Hall on Tuesday, April 4, 2022. Rizwan founded TSO while students were at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The student organization is now starting in-person programming.


The word — which is a greeting in Tamil — is the beginning of the description for UNC's first Tamil Student Organization.

The new group aims to spread knowledge and increase awareness of the Tamil people, their culture and history, according to its description.

Nasiha Rizwan, president of the organization, said she started it after she couldn't find a student group that aligned with her identity.

"The great part of UNC is that it's so diverse," Rizwan said. "But that means you also want to have people who do understand your experiences specifically."

She said the main purpose of the Tamil Student Organization is to have a space that is relatable for students.

"One freshman told us that she, for her it feels like she doesn't miss home as much because of the club, because it feels like home," Rizwan said. "So that's kind of like what we wanted to create for students."

Economics professor Geetha Vaidyanathan, the club’s faculty adviser, said that Tamil is one of the major languages in India, but is also spoken in Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

At UNC in previous years, Tamil has also been offered as a part of language classes.

“But over a period of time, because of low enrollments and budgetary cuts, the language courses stopped getting offered,” Vaidyanathan said. "And this was at a time, you know, like 10 or 12 years ago, when the Tamil background, student population was very, very, very small compared to what it is now."

Rohan Rajesh, vice president of the club, said that in addition to the demographic change that has occurred in North Carolina, students might have more interest in Tamil culture today than in the past.

"I think there's just a lot of valuable things in learning about different cultures," he said. "And Tamil culture is a really ancient surviving culture."

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, students gathered to connect via GroupMe and then eventually in Zoom meetings. Students from Tamil backgrounds primarily attended the meetings, but the conversations were open to anyone.

The group started out very small but eventually grew to about 60 people.

“So we thought, why don’t we actually make this official?” Rizwan said. "And that way, we can get funding for events and have more resources at our disposal."

Vaidyanathan said organizations like TSO offer a community students might have received at home but struggle to find at a large institution.

“And I think this is where this type of organization plays a very useful role for them to stay connected with their culture, language, traditions,” Vaidyanathan said.

She added that the club is also important for students outside of the Tamil culture.

“What I also found was there were some members who did not come from a Tamil background, but they were members simply because they were interested in Tamil culture,” Vaidyanathan said.

Last month, the organization held its first general body meeting. Students enjoyed South Asian snacks while playing a Tamil culture-themed Jeopardy game.

Rizwan said the event had a great turnout. 

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"It is like a specific ethnic group, because we wanted these students to feel represented, but it's for everyone," she said.

TSO has plans to expand their club and cultural activities next semester with more funding and integration of students from the class of 2026.

Rizwan said the club also plans to host more events to make a statement at the University about the importance of Tamil culture. This includes forming a team to bring Tamil back to UNC's language curriculum.

“Eventually, we do want to host like charity events, et cetera," Rizwan said. "So like, we’re starting out small, but we definitely have big goals.”

On Friday, the club is planning to host a cricket tournament with the Asian American Student Association on Hooker Fields.

Students interested in joining and learning more about TSO can do so on its Heel Life page.  |