Sunday, February 18, 2007

News: : Finding Rapture and Learning Tamil, All for College Credit

By Julia David

Imagine spending an entire semester under the warm Indian sun, devoting the day to practicing yoga or meditation, navigating your way though a torrent of swarming vendors and eating the spicy and mouth-watering cuisine every day. Now, imagine getting credit for it.

Wendy Biddlecombe, a junior at The New School, doesn’t have to imagine all this. She’s already there.

Biddlecombe is currently studying abroad at the Pondicherry University in Pondicherry, an old French colony in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Although she’s a writing major, Biddlecombe is taking classes like Hinduism and Its Practices, Yoga, Spoken Tamil (the local language) and South Indian Classical Dance.

School is very different in India than it is in the United States, Biddlecombe said. Classes are primarily lecture based, if the teacher shows up at all. A large amount of emphasis is placed on memorization and written tests. If you’re a study abroad student at Pondicherry University, though, things might not be so bad.

“Luckily, in my study abroad program we take a few classes designed for just the foreign students,” Biddlecombe said. “So teachers are relatively prompt and aren’t mad if we draw in the margins in our blue test books.”

But the school portion of studying abroad, although significant, is not the epitome of the experience: It’s the opportunity to be removed from the familiar and explore the road less traveled that matters most to those who study abroad.

Biddlecombe said she chose to go to India because, “It seemed like it would be exactly opposite from anywhere that I’ve ever been."

Indeed, the Indian way of life is vastly different to that of the western world. A foremost desire is to attain and preserve happiness, which is not necessarily achieved through wealth or fame, a very baffling concept to most people in countries like America, England, or Italy.

According to Biddlecombe, life in Pondicherry “moves very slowly” and can also be “very ridiculous and very hard to understand.” In Indian culture, women are regarded as inferior to men. Men do not look at or talk directly to women and if a woman is accompanied by a man, the person with whom she is talking to will only address the man she is with.

“When I got sick in Bangalore, our tour guide called a doctor who came to my hotel room," Biddlecombe said. "He looked at the tour guide who was with me the entire time, telling him what antibiotics I had to take, how often I had to take them, telling him what I should and what I should not eat.”

Back in 1989, Sarah Saffian, a journalism professor at The New School and advisor for *Inprint*, studied abroad in the northeastern town of Bodh Gaya in the Bihar region of India, where there was only one phone in the local post office. During her stay in India, Saffian, a junior at Brown University, lived in a Burmese monastery with 18 other students.

“I wanted to go somewhere as different as possible,” Saffian said. “That’s the point of studying abroad.”

Saffian participated in two retreats while at the monastery and experienced what it was like not to speak for four days, how to center all thought and concentration into one activity and find purpose in every action. She was also blessed by the Dali Lama.

It was a “step outside of my own experience," Saffian said, as if the autopilot most people allow guide them through life was shut off.

“When things are unfamiliar, it wakes the mind," she added. “Traveling is a different kind of learning.”

Biddlecombe would agree. Even common experiences, such as riding the bus, takes some getting used to, she said.

“Buses are very crowded and always blasting Indian music," Biddlecombe said. “The buses don’t have doors, and it’s not unusual for someone to climb out of a window to get off, or for men to use a ladder to climb up and ride on the roof. The women have to use the door at the back of the bus.”

Biddlecombe, like Saffian, did not go through her own university’s study abroad program. Students can go through different universities or independent organizations to study abroad in their desired country and their credits usually transfer back easily. Biddlecombe went thought IISAC, The International Institute for Scientific & Academic Collaboration, an organization based in Newark, New Jersey and not affiliated with a university.

And so, the question remains: has studying abroad in India significantly changed in the past 18 years? Yes and no. Today, internet and telephones are more accessible, giving students the ability to regularly communicate with their familiar world back home. Saffian believes this makes it difficult for students to fully immerse themselves in the surrounding culture.

“You’re observing yourself,” she said.

But, being in India, she said, a country full of vibrant colors and enduring spirituality, it’s hard to fully overlook what’s around you.

Saffian has not been back to Bodh Gaya since her study abroad experience. When asked, upon her return, whether or not a certain familiarity would remain, she replied by quoting Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “You cannot step twice into the same river.”

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