Katherine Stelzner

Katherine is an Ambassador who studied abroad in India

Major: Political Science

Minor: Psychology


Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?

Study abroad was always part of my plan. It is one of the main reasons I decided to come to CSB in the first place. I knew that going to school in a foreign country for a semester was a once in a lifetime opportunity I could not pass up. I've always been interested by other cultures, the only question was where I would go. India fascinated me in way that no other program did. I knew I wanted to study abroad in a country in which I could truly immerse myself in the culture through a homestay, language classes, and a service-learning component. India fit all that criteria, as well as being one of the most diverse and challenging cultures in the world. I wanted to use my study abroad experience to grow, and India provided me with those opportunities.                             

Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.

Choosing one cultural experience to sum up India is like asking a parent to choose a favorite child, but I'll do my best. I was lucky enough to attend the wedding of my host brother while I was abroad. If you know anything about Hindu weddings, you'll realize one hour would be an overwhelming experience, but Kaustav and Renu's wedding lasted about a week. Because my host brother married a woman from Haryana instead of Bengal (which is where I lived), their wedding was a blend of two cultures.

For the first half, I traveled to Delhi with my host mom and roommate. Since the wedding was in February, I had experienced little of Indian culture outside of stereotypical touristy India. Staying with someone in their thirties contradicted everything I knew. I was welcomed into Kaustav's home like a sister and integrated into my host family like I was Indian myself. That first night there was a mehendi (henna) ceremony for all the females on the groom's side and a Hindu priest came to bless the groom and his family. That night I learned that Hindu religion is really open to interpretation and much more personal than anything in Christianity. The next day I helped my host mom prepare the gifts for the bride and her family, which are presented in another ceremony that only the men attend (although my host mom doesn't follow all the traditional rules so I was allowed to attend). After that ceremony I learned why Bollywood is famous all over the world. There was a party in which I "tried" to learn some Indian dance moves. The next night was what Americans would call the actual marriage ceremony, and it lasted for about 6 hours. It was really amazing to see how in Hinduism, the family is so integrated into the ceremony, it is almost as if the families are marrying each other, not only the bride and groom. I was even included! The bride's family (old women from northern villages) were singing songs to initiate the groom's family into theirs, it was moving and beautiful.

Then we traveled back to Kolkata for the Bengali portion of the wedding. This was a bit more light-hearted because technically the marriage was already done. What I remember most from this time was eating the most delicious food, learning how to wear a sari, and having fun with my new Indian friends (many of whom still feel like family). I saw so much culture in such a short amount of time, but I think the thing I learned most about Indian culture from the wedding wouldn't be defined as a typical cultural experience. I learned Indians really find joy and peace in simply spending time with one another. 

Describe your overall study abroad experience.

This is undoubtedly the hardest question to answer. While I was still in India, I talked to others about how we would answer the unavoidable question upon returning home, "How was India?" We just laughed. But a few words always come to mind, "amazing," "wonderful," "exhausting," "hot," "overwhelming," etc. India cannot be described in a few sentences or even a few hours. Before I left for Kolkata, I looked up some quotes about India to add to my ever-growing anticipation. There was one that stuck out that my mind always returns to now when I try to describe my experiences, "It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor." India forces you to look at the world in a new way, and for me, that new outlook has yet to go away. I fell in love with India and its people.

Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?

Since I see no end to the benefits of travel, I have to narrow my answer down to these categories.

Personal: India still affects my life every day. I changed while I was there; nothing terribly extreme - I still look, act, and talk the same, but my outlook on some things changed. Before going abroad I was cautious and a bit of a perfectionist, which doesn't sound like someone who would survive in India, but my curiosity overcame me. In India you can't be cautious or you won't experience anything and perfection is a completely unattainable goal, but now I realize that's true everywhere. Today things that used to stress me out don't bother me and I've become much more confident. Habits I picked up in India, like journaling, meditation, and slowly enjoying a cup of warm tea, are still a part of my life. And of course, I still talk to the friends I made while in India. I benefitted from my Indian experience by becoming a happier person.

Academic: When I decided to study abroad I wanted complete change in my life, and that included academically. Although St. Xavier's offered political science classes (my major) I decided to take sociology instead, and I don't regret that decision at all. Although the class was incredibly different from anything at CSB/SJU, I appreciated the change because it made me appreciate my own liberal arts education even more. My professor was very kind and truly wanted us to learn about Indian society, and I did. But I also realized that I am very lucky to attend CSB/SJU and learn from my classmates through discussion and receive the individualized attention from my professors.

Professional: I was very excited to go to India because of the service-learning component of the program. I wanted to work for an NGO that focused on women's rights because that's what I wanted to do after graduation. However, in the first of many unanticipated detours I was placed with an NGO that focuses on community development through education. I won't deny I wasn't thrilled with my placement, but India has a way of redefining priorities. My volunteering, along with the influence of my host mother (an English teacher), made me realize that politics may not be the best way to make real change in people's lives. While in India, I changed my mind about my professional goals. Instead of government relations, I now want to be involved in education of some kind. India not only developed my professional pursuits, but also changed them completely. 

What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?

Well first, do it. Just go. It is the most transformative experience I have had so far in my life. When deciding to study abroad, it is very important to consider what you want to gain from the experience. I knew I wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone and experience a completely different way of life. Also, be sure to do your research. This can be online or through conversations with people who know the country well. For a place like India, it is necessary to know both the good and the bad before you go because it can be a lot to handle. And keep an open mind; if you have strict expectations going in, you're only bound to be disappointed. India was not what I expected at all, and that only made me love it more.