India Studies Program Wraps Up Third Semester with Travel Across Northern India

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Fall 2012 ISP students and faculty at the Taj Mahal in Agra -- a dream come true for many students.
Fall 2012 ISP students and faculty at the Taj Mahal in Agra -- a dream come true for many students.

COIMBATORE, India - The students in BestSemester's India Studies Program spend most of their semester living, working, and studying in Coimbatore, the "Manchester of the South," or the textile capital of the South India.

A bustling city of more than two million people, Coimbatore is the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu. It boasts countless features that make it an ideal setting for the newest BestSemester program, which is now in the middle of its fourth semester. Coimbatore is known for its temples and ancient architecture, as well as educational institutions, textile mills, factories, engineering firms, manufacturers, and health care facilities.

Though one could easily spend a lifetime exploring just Coimbatore and the rest of Tamil Nadu, ISP Program Director Kirk McClelland insists that to understand India, you must also travel to the North. So that is what ISP students spend the last two weeks of their semester doing.

"India is so different. If you stayed just in the South, you wouldn't know anything about it," said McClelland. "To really see its diversity and understand all branches of Hinduism, you have to go to the North."

In December 2012, McClelland, program assistant Karmen Tam, and two faculty from ISP's partner academic institution, Bishop Appasamy College of Arts & Science, led the fall semester ISP students on a whirlwind 15-day trip across Northern India. The trip included famous stops such as Calcutta, the city where Mother Teresa did much of her work, and the Taj Mahal, as well as lesser-known cultural and religious sites. Though students stayed in hotels in tourist areas, McClelland and the other faculty took care to arrange "places of significance" for lodging along the trip, including a Christian retreat center and local YMCA.

Senior Johanna Copan described the fall 2012 end-of-semester trip as "the icing on the cake" of an incredible semester.

"All that we learned about in our history and culture classes made sense in a whole new way as we traveled by train from South to North," said Copan, who graduates this spring from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla. "My view of India was expanded, and I better understood the relationship and cultural differences between North and South India."

The group began the trip in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, which boasts a wealth of Islamic history. Stays in Calcutta, Varanasi, Agra, and Dehradun followed, and the trip concluded in Delhi, the capital of India. During ISP's first year, McClelland and other faculty refined the trip's itinerary to include "classic sites in the North, as well as meetings with meaningful people who inspire students."

According to Tam, the ISP program assistant who wrote about each stop on the group's journey for the program blog, one student described Calcutta as "what you think of when you think of India." Despite its historical and cultural gems, Calcutta in particular is a challenging highlight for most students, said McClelland.

Several students described the impact of a startling scene in Calcutta: While visiting Kalighat Temple, which is dedicated to the "bloodthirsty goddess" Kali, the group witnessed the sacrifice of a young goat.

"It wasn't on my personal agenda for the day," said Ashley Ober, a junior at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. "[The sacrifice] left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach, but a greater understanding of the depth of Christ's sacrifice."

Like her five ISP classmates, Ober reveled in seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, but she especially treasured stops in lesser-known locations such as Dehradun, a city nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.

"I loved being able to see some of the bigger tourist attractions, but some of the most meaningful pieces of the trip were not spent in the glamorous areas," she said. "One of the things we did in each city was walk through the streets-not just the developed areas where Westerners might go, but through the neighborhoods, and into their temples, where the majority live. The trip forced me to encounter pieces of India that I wish did not exist-the poor areas, the slums, the places where people are not properly provided for."

It was not just scenes of poverty and injustice that confronted students, however: Long hours of group train travel challenged students personally, culturally, and communally.

"Spending so much time on the train was a challenge for me," admitted Ober. "The most rewarding piece was realizing that I am capable of much more than I gave myself credit for. I didn't think I would be able to spend over 90 hours on a train in a two-week span, but I did. I didn't think I would be able to white-water raft down the Ganges-let alone enjoy it-but I did. I didn't think that I could handle all of the poverty and suffering that we would experience, but I did."

McClelland takes great pride in the strides students make during the semester, particularly during the intense pace of the two-week trip.

"Our American sense of space is very different," he said. "The train travel can be uncomfortable for Westerners. But it's also an opportunity to meet local people and live the way they live. By the end of the trip, students are champs. They become experienced train travelers."

According to Tanner Michels, a student at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., because students and faculty developed a close-knit community during the trip that superseded any one destination, "it didn't really matter where we stopped."

"I fell in love with my group, my micro-family that I grew to love in spite of all our differences," said Michels. "The Taj Mahal was amazing; so was the small temple in Varanasi. [But] it wasn't the locations that made the trip, no matter how amazing they were. It was about visiting these sites together as a family and enjoying them for the first time as a whole."

For junior Kelly Uchiumi, from George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., the most memorable moment of the trip occurred in New Delhi, as the group was returning from lunch by way of bicycle rickshaws. When one bicyclist became tired and tried to flag down a new rickshaw to finish the trip, visiting Bishop Appasamy lecturer and avid biker Randy Cronk, professor of psychology at Mount Vernon University in Mount Vernon, Ohio, took over.

"It was so funny watching people's faces as they pointed at us, laughing that a white tourist was biking on the rickshaw, while our driver was running behind making sure that we didn't run off the street into any cracks," said Uchiumi.

Through the trip's challenges, triumphs, and memories, the faculty continued to stress the connection to experiences back in the students' Western cities and on their Western campuses.

"There are problems and challenges here," McClelland tells his students every semester. "Where is that in your own country? How can you work for justice and peace?"

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About BestSemester: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities offers 12 off-campus study programs, collectively branded BestSemester®, which expand learning opportunities for students from CCCU campuses and are designated as culture-shaping or culture-crossing programs. Culture-shaping BestSemester programs are: American Studies Program (Washington, D.C.); Contemporary Music Center (Nashville); Los Angeles Film Studies Center (Los Angeles); and Washington Journalism Center (Washington, D.C.). Culture-crossing BestSemester programs are: Australia Studies Centre; China Studies Program; India Studies Program; Latin American Studies Program; Middle East Studies Program; Programmes in Oxford; and Uganda Studies Program. Visit www.bestsemester.com for program details.

About the CCCU: The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities is a higher education association of 172 intentionally Christ-centered institutions around the world. The 118 member campuses in North America are all fully-accredited, comprehensive colleges and universities with curricula rooted in the arts and sciences. In addition, 54 affiliate campuses from 20 countries are part of the CCCU. The Council's mission is to advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth. Visit www.cccu.org.