Never standing still


It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday in early April, and while many students are lining up for brunch in the cafeteria or still lounging in their pajamas, Daven Raj has been up hours.

Dressed in a pressed Oxford shirt, black slacks and shiny black dress shoes, Raj has been teaching students and adults how to learn the proper twirls and steps to the Vienesse Waltz, a crucial dance to be performed at the Vienesse Ball on campus this weekend, since 9 a.m.

Raj, with his instructing partner, sophomore Shari Berg, stands in the center of a room in the L.E. Phillips Senior Center, surrounded by mostly young couples who signed up for the dance workshop with Two to Tango.

Displaying a natural grace and aptitude for the Viennese Waltz, Raj first demonstrates with Berg how the dance is properly executed. Dancing together to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” their feet move furiously as their oscillations span most of the room.

After that it’s on to the lesson plan, where Raj and Berg continue demonstrating techniques and giving encouraging feedback.

It’s not the typical Saturday morning for most students, but Raj isn’t a typical student.

A sophomore international student from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Raj has made no small effort to get involved on campus. He came to UW-Eau Claire in the fall of 2007 to study political science with an emphasis on legal studies.

The Eau Claire experience
Raj said the decision to come to America stemmed from his interest in studying abroad in general. He was considering both the United Kingdom and America, but when the opportunity to attend school in Eau Claire presented itself, Raj accepted based on the laid back impression he had heard of life in the States.

“I had never even heard of Wisconsin except for That ’70s Show,'” Raj said. “I didn’t Google it or anything . I was just excited to go somewhere. I heard that it snowed a lot here, and, being from a country where it’s 90 degrees all year long, I was really excited to be somewhere cold.”

Raj said he likes Eau Claire’s smaller size. He likes that people know each other here, versus a big city atmosphere where people are less noticeable in their surroundings.

But the first thing that struck him when he got to Eau Claire was the colors.

“The first thing I noticed was how everything was so extreme,” Raj said. “The sky was so blue, the grass was so green. The colors were so crazy beautiful. Back home, I was in the capital, so there was more pollution. Here, the moon was so much brighter, the sky was so much brighter.”

Another experience that had a large impact on Raj’s experience in America was a Civil Rights trip he took last spring, visiting southern states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana. Raj said the trip made him appreciate America more, and the struggles it has faced.

Speaking about the Little Rock Nine, Raj said it was amazing how they fought against adversity for the sake of education.

“It’s hard to describe the experience,” he said. “It rejuvenated my passion to study.”

Raj said the trip hit him especially hard because there are racial tensions growing in Malaysia. It made him want to help people back home.

“It evoked the feeling in me knowing that there’s a possibility for equality anywhere in the world if people stand up for it.”

After a trip to the Blugold Organizational Bash, Raj began his robust career on campus.

Student Senate
Currently, Raj is an on-campus Student Senator, involved in various multicultural committees. He joined Senate during his first semester at Eau Claire.

He heads the Multicultural Issues Committee, a diversity organization within Senate under the umbrella of Student Diversity and Life. He said the committee works to bring more cultural experiences to Eau Claire students.

“The main reason I joined Student Senate was to be an advocate for international students,” he said. “It’s important that every single student here is represented.”

Sophomore David Steinfeld – a friend of Raj’s and an international student from Germany – said he thinks Raj is a good representative for international students on campus.

“He contributes our voice to the Student Senate,” Steinfeld said. “He wants to make sure that tuition for us won’t be on the rise too much, because we have to pay twice as much, being international students.”

Raj said he enjoys being a part of Student Senate because of the impact he can have on the university.

“In senate you don’t just talk about things, you get to do something about it,” he said. “Having that unified voice is amazing. Its amazing the changes we can bring.”

He works with the Peer Diversity Educators, an organization that works to increase awareness of social issues and diversity, he said. Raj said the organization deals with various issues of diversity, including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer rights, religion, ethnicity, race, social status and class status, to name a few. He said the emphasis of the program is to show that diversity is not only on the outside.

“Every single thing within us can make us diverse,” he said.

Two to Tango
In addition to governing with Student Senate, Raj still finds time to cut loose on the dance floor.

He currently serves as the vice president of Two to Tango, a student dance organization that specializes in helping people learn to dance. Raj’s initial interest in Two to Tango stemmed from the Viennese Ball.

Raj said there is also a Viennese Ball in Malaysia. He auditioned as a dancer to be selected to attend the original ball in Austria and was accepted for the honor. But, because of his plans to study in America, he was forced to miss the opportunity.

“I was really sad I couldn’t go,” he said.

Raj said he has always liked dancing, but traditionally it took place in clubs in Malaysia.

“My brothers were really good at dancing in clubs, and I could never catch up with them,” Raj said.

To catch up, he enrolled in a free salsa dancing lesson in Malaysia with his girlfriend at the time. The instructor was so impressed with his moves that he was invited to take private lessons with her, Raj said. All in all, he knows around 16 dances, including the Cha Cha, Meringue and Waltz.

Berg, the secretary for Two to Tango, and Raj auditioned to be instructors for the organization at the same time in fall 2007. Berg remembers Raj as being comfortable dancing with other people right away, albeit a little quieter than he is today.

She said he has brought ideas to Two to Tango from the organizations he’s in, such as an instructor of the month award, exploring different avenues for funding and organizing other events, and that the organization has benefited because of it.

Berg said Raj is always dependable and creates lesson plans for the workshops he teaches. She said she enjoys working with Raj and looks forward to their workshops together. She described Raj’s teaching style as serious but accepting.

“People know that they can ask him questions and he won’t blow them off,” she said. “He’ll answer them sincerely. People don’t feel intimidated by him.

“Everybody loves Daven.”

Family ties
Raj said his motivation to be so involved comes from his desire to keep busy. He said knowing he can make a difference and help people also inspires him. Another motivation is his family.

“Knowing that my family, and my younger siblings, look up to me and when they see that I’m so involved, it makes them want to work harder,” he said.

Raj’s father is a doctor, and his parents own medical clinics around Kuala Lumpur. He has one older brother and two younger ones, as well as an adopted sister who was born at one of his father’s clinics. While Raj saw his family last summer, he said he probably won’t be able to go home again until the summer of 2010. He said he misses seeing them.

“It’s hard like every single day, having those moments when you just miss everybody,” he said.

He said it’s especially difficult to be separated from his younger brother, Rakisdra, who looks up to him – another reason Raj is motivated to succeed in Eau Claire.

Rakisdra was born when Raj was 12, and Raj took care of him much of the time his parents were at work. He would sing him to sleep and even taught him the ABCs.

“That (fatherly) instinct came out in me,” he said. “He’s helped me mature so much. My whole life is different because of him.”

Raj’s parents said in an e-mail that he was a well-mannered and bright child growing up.

“He was a wonderful, loving, energetic and very inquisitive child,” said Ghandi Rajan, Daven’s father. “As a child, at the age of 10 months, he could walk and talk very fluently, which is uncommon in the majority of children.”

He said Raj is always willing to learn new things and mix with other people.

“He has the highest regards for Americans’ way of life and he feels he is in the right place.”