Independent Minds, Working Together
Participants in the Wooster-in-Northeast India program gather in front of the Taj Mahal

Participants in the Wooster-in-Northeast India program gather in front of the Taj Mahal: (from left) Stephanie Sugars, Tiara Patton, Caroline Wensel, Julie Shuff, Julia Mutere (front), Peter Pozefsky (back), Ariel Veroske, and Rachel Rothenberg, along with St. Anthony's Rakhal Purkayastha.

 

Wooster-In-Northeast India Program Takes Experiential Learning Beyond the Borders

Seven Wooster students participate in 30-day immersion program

July 24, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Seven students from The College of Wooster recently returned from a month-long (May 14-June 14) study-abroad program in Northeast India, which was hosted by St. Anthony’s College in Shillong. Rakhal Purkayastha, a Fulbright Scholar and a former visiting professor of history and political science at Wooster who is now on the faculty at St. Anthony’s, coordinated the trip, which was led by Peter Pozefsky, professor of history at Wooster.

The in-class component of the program consisted of two courses: one on the history and politics of modern India, and the other on Indian geography and the environment. The experiential study and travel part of the curriculum incorporated visits to Delhi and Agra in North Central India, Gorumara National Park in West Bengal, the Tea Gardens of Kurseong, and Sikkim in the Himalayas.

Wherever the students went, friendly locals, hoping to get their picture taken with American travelers, pursued them. The students witnessed more than just the amiable behavior and hospitality of the locals, however; they also observed the more impoverished side of life in India. Their entire concept of what it means to be underprivileged was challenged, said Pozefsky. “The sheer number of people; their close proximity to each other; the extraordinary heat; and the smell of sweat and human waste was overpowering he said in describing the group’s experience of coming upon a train station late at night where thousands of people were packed like sardines, trying to sleep.

“None of us had ever experienced anything like it,” added Pozefsky. “It had an impact on everything. When you see another culture in an informed way, you begin to look at your own from a different perspective. The hospitality of our hosts and the commitment of Indians to democracy was very inspiring. But there were other things — like the governmental corruption and extremes of social inequality — that also raised awareness.”

The group faced many other challenges as well, including trying to get to know local students, who were extremely shy and daunted by international visitors, and were so unnerved by the cultural differences of meal preparation and eating that they refused to dine with the American students. Other challenges were logistical, such as integrating in-class learning with travel (especially when sitting in traffic for hours on end); accommodations (the female dormitory facility at the Catholic university locked the students in at 9 p.m. every evening to reassure tribal parents of their daughter’s safety); and the food, which, while delicious, was very different from American cuisine.

Purkayastha praised the eagerness of the students to learn as much as possible and their adaptability in dealing with things as they came about. “They accepted extremes of climate, rough travel and living arrangements, sudden shifts in plans, and so much more without even a murmur of complaint,” said Purkayastha, who was also impressed by the strong bonding between the members of the group and the relationship between the faculty and students that was “firmly grounded on mutual affection, understanding, and respect.”

Pozefsky said the trip accomplished the program’s goals as well as his own. The students received two full credits for their work, broadening their academic horizons to better fit into their education at Wooster as well as the College’s goals as an institution to produce responsible global citizens with a respect for diversity. They also gained the wisdom that comes with experiencing another culture, which inspired and prepared them for further travels abroad, including the desire to revisit India.

“They were extremely positive and energetic,” said Pozefsky. “From a faculty perspective, one of the things you don’t think about taking away from the program is what you learn by spending 30 days, 24/7, with Wooster students. I didn’t expect that I would learn so much about our own students’ habits, values and aspirations.”

The cooperation and collaboration developed during this experience will certainly prove useful as the student’s academic careers progress. Some of them will further study abroad in the coming semesters and, during their senior year, will work on an Independent Study project (Wooster’s nationally acclaimed senior capstone program in which a student works one-on-one with a faculty mentor to complete a thesis, a work of art, or a dramatic or musical performance).

“We want the students to carry a little bit of India wherever they go,” said Purkayastha. “In whatever forums, whenever India is being discussed, they should be able to add a bit of their own experience here — both good and bad.”

— Story by Libby Fackler ‘13