UI student serves his country while upholding religious beliefs

Third-year University of Iowa student Gursharan Virk is leaving his mark on campus as the first student to receive a waiver to wear a turban and keep a beard while in a U.S. Air Force uniform.


Contributed photo from Gursharan Virk

Madeleine Willis, News Reporter

When he became a Hawkeye, University of Iowa third-year student Gursharan Virk was unable to wear his turban or keep his beard and wear a U.S. Air Force uniform. 

Now, Virk is the first Sikh Air Force cadet in U.S. history allowed to wear his religious symbols while in uniform.

Virk practices the Sikh faith, a monotheistic religion where wearing a turban, religious bracelet, and keeping a beard are sacred for men.

“It’s a religion that believes in humanity and doing good,” he said. “Serving the people, and helping those who are in need of help, and overall, just giving back to society.”

When Virk first arrived on campus in August 2020, he knew he wanted to join the Air Force. 

“I always wanted to fly, and you know, the Air Force is the best place to fly. I think they have the coolest planes,” Virk said. “I also always had this thing about service and also the uniform. So, yeah, I always wanted to go military, and I found ROTC, I thought that was the best way to get to it.”

Due to uniform standards, Virk was unable to wear religious symbols while in uniform. He applied for a waiver in August 2020 that would allow him to wear the uniform, a turban, and keep his beard while serving his country, which was approved in December 2021.

For Virk, wearing his turban signifies the history of his religion. He said he is proud to wear it and stand out because he knows it exemplifies the means of helping people. 

“It means a lot to me,” he said. “Being able to do both without compromising on either.”

He will receive his placement in 2023. Ultimately, Virk’s dream is to be commissioned as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

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Apart from his involvement in ROTC, Virk is majoring in bioinformatics and is involved in many other organizations including the Indian Student Alliance and the University Veterans Association. 

Lt. Col. Matthew Youmans, U.S. Air Force commander of the UI Air Force ROTC detachment, said Virk sets the bar high and exemplifies hard work for other cadets. 

“His work ethic is spot on,” he said. “We can always rely on him to not only do a good job, but do it on time or ahead of time, and then really put a lot of effort or energy into the task we assign him.”

Youmans said Virk’s background brings culture to the unit. 

“We do have a lot of diverse challenges out there, and we need diversity to help address those challenges and help overcome those challenges that our country faces,” Youmans said. 

Virk also listens and connects to other students as an On Iowa! leader. 

UI Orientation Services Assistant Director Adam Jedlicka said Virk checked all the boxes to be a leader. 

“He knows how to gather people into a room and get folks connected as a community,” he said. “He was also very dependable and always checked in to make sure that he was doing his best.”

Jedlicka said Virk is an inspiration to incoming students because he listens and connects to others. 

“In this instance, just thinking on his ability to stand up for what he believes and to advocate I think is really, really cool,” he said. “…I think it shows that representation matters.”