Trailblazers

First group of CSB and SJU students spend semester in Kolkata, India

July 8, 2011

By Diane Hageman

Pictured from left to right are CSB students Katie Campbell, Ashley Blaine, Elizabeth Gleich, and Brynn Haugen.

Visit with College of Saint Benedict students Brynn Haugen and Kia Lor and they'll be the first to tell you that they didn't mind one bit being the "trailblazers" for the new India study abroad program.

Ten CSB students and two students from Saint John's University, along with their faculty director, Madhu Mitra, professor of English, departed from Minnesota in January for Kolkata, India, where they would spend spring semester. They were the first group from CSB and SJU to travel to India for a semester-long study abroad experience.

Mitra, a native of Kolkata, had been involved with the planning of this program since 2005 when six CSB and SJU faculty members travelled to India to explore the possibility of developing a program. After several subsequent trips, it was decided to partner with St. Xavier's College (a Jesuit college established in Kolkata about 150 years ago).

Haugen, a senior art and environmental studies major and Lor, a junior communication major, were in awe of the sheer number of people there. 

"It was so chaotic on every single street. The people-watching was really interesting," Haugen said.

"The biggest eye-opener for me was I was expecting more of the high class, modern Bollywood India.  There was such contradiction in what we saw," Lor explained.  "Things were either really nice or really dirty. People were either really rich or really poor."

Mitra thoroughly enjoyed watching her students acclimate to the city of 12 million and felt that "the most valuable thing that happened was that the students, all of whom had rather naïve and simple ideas about India, came back with an infinitely more complex understanding of Indian society."

The CSB and SJU students spent five to six hours a day in class at St. Xavier's College (SXCC), one of India's premier educational institutions. They enrolled directly at SXCC for one class of their choice and took courses in Bengali language, culture, arts and the history of India. All students also took a Study Abroad Seminar course from Mitra.  

"It was thrilling for me to hear them speak their first words and then sentences of Bengali, to watch them gradually become aware of and the tremendous complexities of India," Mitra noted. She particularly enjoyed the Bengali cultural program the students put on toward the end of the semester where they sang Bengali songs, recited Bengali poems and performed a Bengali folk dance. "They were simply amazing."

In addition to classes, the students completed a service learning project during the semester.  They each volunteered between six and eight hours per week at a local non-government organization and took a course which helped them navigate the Indian society and its needs. 

The majority of the students, including Lor, volunteered at Loreto Day School, Sealdah, a 1500-student all-female school with a broad mix of very poor and wealthy students. She worked with mostly 10-17 year olds.

"The students taught me so much Bengali (native language), I wasn't expecting to learn so much from them. I thought our educational system was better than theirs but I was wrong. They really know their history and culture - and the United States, as well. I became much more enlightened."

Haugen volunteered with the Water for People project, which provides filters for clean water and tests ground water. She assisted with office work and helped to create a brochure. She enjoyed being able to work in an environmentally related service project and hopes to find something similar in the United States.

All of the CSB and SJU students stayed with host families, a fact that both Lor and Haugen felt was a highlight of the experience.

"The hospitality was so great. It felt safe and comforting," Haugen said. "I stayed with two fabulous host parents and their son. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip."

Lor referred to her host parents as "auntie and uncle." She would frequently travel to school with her host sister which was a one-hour plus excursion via rickshaw and subway where they would see crowds of people, many of whom were homeless. 

"Personally, I had to overcome some trust issues. I was living in fear. It took a month but I had to talk myself in to trust people and I found out they were really nice."

Lor, from St. Paul, Minn., now sees the world in a much broadened and different way. She looks forward to her next study abroad experience in China in the fall. She also wants to connect with the CSB and SJU international students more closely. 

"The people of India were so kind to me, took me in and were so gracious.  I want to extend that same hospitality to our international students too."