US Student-semester in India

St. Mary's College Semester Around the World                                                                                                                                            Nov.15558    8-21,1999

        34       US Students'  Discovery  of  India

                         Dr.James  Kottoor   

       Foreign visitors and tourists come to India with strange notions or pathetic,dismal, wild, exhotic, stereotyped and antediluvian views, get a culture-shock and go back totally changed and bewildered. This is what has emerged from the answers  of some  34 American students, currently at Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Ernakulam, Kochi, undergoing a two month course, as part of their "St.Mary's College Semester Around the World".

This is a programme open to students from Notre Dame University and St. Mary's College, two sister Institutions conducted by Holy Cross Fathers and Sisters, South Bend, Indiana,USA. Headed by Dr. Cyriac Pullapilly, the group left Los Anglees on Aug.20,visited briefly Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and then various cities in India -- Delhi, Agara, Jaipur, Aurangabad,Madras, Bombay,Thiruchi, Madurai, Missouri, Mahabalipuram, Tanjore, Periyar, Munnar and arrived at S.H.College on Sept.26.

Here they study for two months, attending classes for 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, covering 5 subjects:1.Indian History and Literature, 2.Indian Sociology, 3.Indian Philosophy and Religion [Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc.], 4.Indian Economics and Government, 5.Indian Art and Music[dance, theatre, film, painting, sculpture]. During weekends they have arranged meetings and tours of museums, local schools, and other local attractions like Martial Arts Gym, Cochin History Museum, Art Museum etc.One of the key elements of the programme is a home stay with an Indian family for one week end , Saturday-Sunday,in groups of two. They indeed have quite  a crowded programme!

                                  Five Questions

This group of 34 -- 9 young men and  25 women --were given 5 questions to answer.1.What was the image of India you had before you landed here? 2.What impressed you most during your few weeks stay here? 3.What depressed/shocked you most during these days? 4.Before you come to India for a second visit what changes would you like to see happen? 5. Which are the two or three perceptions you had of India, which your short stay here has forced you to change?

Their preconceived idea of India: Answering this first question, the salient phrases with which they described India were: a place of incredible poverty, crowded with slums of  sad-eyed, malnourished, famished children, underdeveloped economically, socially and technologically; over populated, caste ridden, hot, dirty,flthy, highly polluted with flies all over, lacking basic amenities and cows wandering the streets; a place of religious fundamentalism, religious strife, of temples in forests and elephants to reach there; shirtless sadus squatting on street corners charming cobras with flute; people believing in superstitions, ghosts, stories and myths; largest politically unstable democracy teeming with manual labourers; with few nice cities or having poor transportation facilities;  inefficient in  business and fighting constantly with Pakistan.

                       What Ipressed them?                                                     

What did they discover instead? What impressed them most were the incredibly warm, gratious hospitality and friendship of the people; prominence of religion in daily life coupled with strong belief as well as religious freedom and tolerance; Hindu spirituality; beauty of the country, lush scenery, beautiful beaches, beauty of the Hymalayas, Tajmahal, Aurangabad, Mussoori, Cochin, natural scenery of Munnar, Kerala;  variation in climate and terrain; importance and closeness of the family life; people's generosity, approachability, unconcern for material things, positive outlook and optimism, national pride, contentment and simplicity of life; adorable, wide eyed friendly children; people wearing vividly colourful clothes in bleak surroundings; growing education, people who speak English well; food beyond expectation, Indian tea; impressive monuments and handicrafts; powerful music, people riding rickshaws;  high percentage of voter turn out, in short, unity in diversity

What shocked and depressed them? Poor living conditions, children in tattered clothes, number of beggars-- deformed, disfigured, malnourished, crippled; babies begging for money, children sleeping on the road, disabled children; slums, dirty shacks without plumbing, electricity; garbage, pollution and waste all over; unsanitary food packaging, disease; live stock roaming the road, spiting, nose picking, urinating on the road, open sewers, going to bathroom on the street; oppression of women, aggressiveness towards them, glaring, leering,sneering, threatening  as though to molest sexually;   inequality of men and women, separation of men and women in bus, churches; lack of freedom of movement for women after dusk, expected to be back home early evening, lack of interaction between boys and girls; dishonest rickshaw drivers; swarming, aggressive street vendors, persistent merchants; being looked upon as $ signs on tourist spots; inefficiency, lack of enforcement of law; ill-informed student strikes --some don't know why they  strike; foolish misallocation of funds, so many unemployed, rampant violence at polling centres, terrible road system and caste system.

What changes envisaged, desired? By the time they make a second visit they would like to see a reduction in the gap between rich and poor, improvement in living standards; freedom from sexual harassment; safety, euqlaity and better treatment of women; pollution control, cleaner streets and good drinking water facilities; better roads and transportation; sidewalks for commercial streets, public trash cans for cleaner streets, better side walks, improved highway system, less littered land and polluted water, increase in literacy and mandatory education; pushing out pushy peddlers from transit locations, more stable government less connected with RSS, BJP and religion; freedom to love, and air conditioning.

                                                                                                         Discovery  of India

New Vision of India. Travelling in India and staying here for a couple  of weeks, meeting people and studying,  made them change many of their views. They have discovered that India is beautiful and Indians are very open; that foreigners are most welcome here. People though poor are still happy, happier than those in USA.While wealth in America is identified with one's possessions,  it is sought and found in caring, loving, sacrificing family in India. People don't mind arranged marriages here.No middle class, only rich and poor in India. Hinduism is about religion and culture and not about strange Gods and not eating meat. There is more religious harmony  than expected and less poverty than feared, and any number of worldly educated people.The majority in fact is literate. The country is developing rapidly. In short,  the beauty of the land and its hospitable people shines over the dirt and poverty of India.


Notre Dame and Saint Mary's have over fifteen other foreign study programmes -- in England, Ireland, Spain,Intaly,France, Germany, Greece,Israel, Thaiwan, China, Vietnam, Malasia,Japan, Mexico, Chilli.These groups go only to the designated country and undergo a prescribed  course of studies.Where the language is different from English, they go through an initial language course of the country they are going to.These are not round the world study tours like the Around the world
                                Net Gains of Semester

 What are the net gains of this Semester around the world? According to Dr. Cyriac Pullapilly,the Director,who is originally from India, it is the tremendous exposure the students get encountering different cultures.They get back to their country greatly matured, self assured, open minded and balanced in their outlook and  improved vastly in their general knowledge after this global experience. They will perform much better in further studies, get easier selection for higher education or better job opportunities.

 Dr.Cyriac, whom the students love and adore, makes them go through the "rarest of rare exposures". For example on previous visits he made the group meet the then President of India Sankar Deyal Sharma who  had a long and relaxed chat with them; with the then Prime Minister Narasimha  Rao who too entertained them leisurely; took them to visit Mother Theresa, to  meet several  Governors and ministers of State and very promiment personalities in India. This time he could not make the arranged meeting with President K.R.Narayanan, as it happened to be the polling day in Delhi, although it was a free day when the appointment was fixed.

When the curriculum vitae of these students contains this study outside USA, they become the sought after candidates at interviews and usually score top marks. Besides they get one full semester's credit for completing their college studies, that too without spending too much additional money for this tour because the semester fee in the college is used for this trip. Usually the yearly tuition fee would cost each student $ 25,000 to 30,000. In addition each student may have  to find an additional $800 to 1000 for this travel including what they may plan to spend for their personal purchases during  tour.

                                     Most   Rewarding Aspect

The most rewarding, encouraging, fulfilling aspect of conducting these tours for Dr.Cyriac is the number of letters of appreciation and gratitude he gets from the parents of these students once they are back home, because they find their children so much changed for the better and much better equipped for an exemplary, self assured and promising future life.

Dr.Cyriac who started teaching history at St.Mary's some 30 years ago did not have an easy time to bring forth  this brain child of his and to nurture it to this stage. What prompted him out on this venture was the awefully inadequate  picture people in the States had about India. So he started thinking of making at least a small section of the American intelligentia to go through an experience of exposure to Indian culture.

 His first attempt was to lead groups of American professors for summer study tours of India. Funded by the Fulbright Foundation, these tours were organized for the summer months of June,July,August which included  also weeks of seminars on various  topics on India. The only stipulation was that when these professors get back to the States they should start some short course about India in their respective universities. Thus he has succeeded in getting such courses introduced in some 50 universities in the USA.

                                 Student Group Tour

What had started with college professors ended with college students. It was in l981 that he managed to organize the first group of 9 to volunteer for a tour of India. On various earlier attempts there were no takers for such a tour in the college as India presented no attraction  for college students. A  lot of canvasing and advertising process had to be gone through to get the first of group of 9 girls whom he took to Stella Maris, Madras. Then onwards tours were organized every two years. In l983 again he could get only another batch of 9 girls. But in l985 there  were l6  students   9 girls and 7 boys and as the number of boys and girls increased arrangements were made with Stella Maris and Loyola Colleges in Madras for conducting the 2 month course of studies.It was only in l995 that Dr. Cyriac shifted the venue of studies from Madras  to Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Kochi. The present trip is the tenth he is conducting  to India and the third to Sacred Heart. There were 400 applicants this time, out of which he selected only 34.The number is kept small to insure that every student gets personal attention and guidance from the director. Besides Indian tourists buses take only 34, says Dr.Cyriac and 34 plus one seat for himself  makes a compact group for one tourist bus. This also makes it possible for him to give lectures on various topics  as the group travels from place to place.

Students who participate in these tours  come mostly from the middle class section of the population and they finance their studies doing summer jobs and  through soft loans  from the government, which they have to pay back, and through scholarship grants  for  their excellence in studies. In the States scholarships are granted only to those who are  good in studies, but  not well off financially, which  is verified through due process. Since students are paying for their studies they take  these study tours dead seriously and make utmost out of them. Only well deserving  students  were screened and selected from  the list of 400 applicants. After the completion of this Semester Around the World  and encountering Indian culture from various angles, they are expected to go back as self appointed ambassadors of India. This will not be difficult, as all of them have fallen in love with one or other aspect of India.                                                    SH Study Programme

Fr.George Koikara  the Vice Principal of Sacred H.College is in charge of organizing and supervising  the study programme of these students. A strict disciplinarian, he gives in to students on many things  except on pruning class hours or watering down prescribed study programme for the American students. It was on Kerala Piravi day on Nov.l, when all the Girls including the 25 Americans g had all come  dressed in Saries and the Student leaders of the S.H. came into the Vice Principal's room for permission to get the American girls out of their class  for a group photo.

The American  girls were  attending an Indian dance class -- visual exposure of to Indian Dance at  that time.Fr. Geroge asked beeming broadly at  them: "These American students are paying from their pocket for the dance professors they have brought as part of their study programme and I am here to make sure that they get good returns for every penny they spent for their studies. You would not be asking them to prune their precious class time if you too had been paying  as they do for every minute of your class. Would you?" The student leaders had to leave saying:"Thank you!" As far as he is concerned the net gain of this foreign students' study programme is the great exposure our Indian students get to foreign cultures and values through their  interaction with American students.Even more the colleges professors themselves get the best exposure as these students are made to  evaluate the performance of their Indian Professors.

After finishing their course, the group will leave on Nov.30th from Bombay to Zoorich, Switserland and from there, on their own to reach their homes  before Christmas. What are their future plans? Missy Hostetler, l9, from Oregon says:"My father owns a tree farm and my mother teaches 4th grade.I am a Junior 3rd year student studying Anthropology and Computer Applications. I will graduate next year with a Bachelor of Arts and Letters[BA]. I would like to become an elementary teacher."

Katie McDonough,20, from Illionis says:"My father is a physician and my mother a registered nurse.I am studying pre-medicine as well as Anthropology. After completing medical school, I would eventually like to volunteer through an organization known as 'Doctors Without Borders'."


What follows is 10 quotes from studentsQuotable Quotes

                From the Great  minds of  young  Americans!

    1.-- Nick Nagurski,20,Minnesota: What Impressed:"Loving and welcoming nature of the people and families; diversity among all the regions[desert, mountains, beaches forest -so beautiful]; beauty  of the architecture[Taj Mahal]; variety and tastes of the Indian food; rich history of Rajas, forts, wars  etc. - facinating. A country made up of so much culture, so much variety. A beautiful example of unity in diversity." What depressed:  "Poverty and sickness; the way western women are treated by  Indian men;the attention  we receive from everyone -- shocking!"

  2--Megan Jordina,20,N.Carolina: What Impressed:"The treatment we received.Most of our hotels greeted us like we  were royalty. People were friendly. Technology, even if in limited amounts, does exist here. The scenery is absolutely beautiful in almost every city we've visited. Indian food is delicious."What depressed:"The vendors - how aggressive they were.The beggars in North India -- they were so many. I hated the way we were stared at everywhere we went.I'm tired of being some sort of spectacle."

            3--Christine Efta,F,l9,Indiana: "I thought India would be hot, crowded and dirty.I expected to see poverty and hopeless people. I never expected India to be so beautiful and the people to have so much joy while not having much in terms of possessions. I love it here."

          4--Karoline Pershell,F.l9,Michigan:"Tourist attractions were difficult because vendors saw us only as dollar signs.I am a student travelling. I do not plan on this being a shopping trip.One of the most unnerving things about travelling so far in India has been the relentless staring. It is unnerving. It make me very self-conscious. I realize Americans may not be too common, but staring can be intimidating."

           5--Scott Killen, 20,California"I pictured a  third world country where poverty and pollution were the basic norm.I expected there would be lots of people and few nice cities.I thought that most people would be unhappy, but on the contrary, people seem happier here than in USA.

      6--Jordan Curnes, M.20.Texas:Changes desired:  "A more stable, democratic, effective government without violence during elections. A much improved infrastructure - national highways, banking facilities. A greater commitment of the central government to technology sector, so India may utilize the large number of highly educated professionals in the work force. More effective labour negotiations to prevent the constant striking of numerous commericial associations."Changed views: "I perceived that majority of the population was illiterate as in the case of many third world nations, yet staying in Kerala has dramatically altered this perception. Even though many inefficiencies do still exist, commerce seems to be moving along at a rapid pace in many cities through out India."

          7--.Kristin Frazer,F,20,Indiana:What shocked: "Seeing people living in poverty, a poverty that I never imagined before. Being harrassed by vendors every time we got off the bus. Seeing trash and waste all along the streets. The smell  of the air and water! I was shocked by the pollution. The stereotypes Indians have of American women depressed me a lot."

          8--Gregory Joseph,M,23, California:What shocked: "The poor children, and not being able to help them.Perverted men. Live stock on sidewalk. The separation of men and women on buses, churches etc.Unsanitary food packaging." "Prior to coming to India I thought Hinduism was about many strange Gods and not eating meat. Now I have great respect for the fundamental essence of Hinduism and all religions. I didn't realize how rich the culture was either."

           .9--Christina E.Fitch:F.21.Conneticut:"I knew that the quality of life - nutrition, health, transportation - was not as high as in the States. I knew that the culture was ancient and therefore very rich.I expected to see slums as we would see in American cities. People are unhappy in their povery.Everyone wants to come to America or Europe."

          10--Megan Cloninger, F,20, Florida: Photo:Changes desired: "Freedom  to love for the sake of love, rather  than as a function. More job opportunities for young people, which would lead to greater independence from parents because people could fund their own education/chase whatever dreams they may have. Public trash cans -- no wonder people put trash on the ground, there is no other place!More stable government, less connected with religion, RSS,BJP, etc.Get rid of caste system."