Interview with India Study Abroad Participant: Chris

India pics

Chris is a Master of Social Work student and will receive his degree in spring 2015. He also received his Bachelor of Social Work with honors at USF in December 2013. He is a current member of the NASW and was an active member of the Social Work Society during his undergraduate studies. A few students in the Social Work Society and him raised nearly two thousand dollars in two months to rebuild a home for a family who lost their home in the Haiti 2010 earthquake. He traveled with professor Rahill and one other student to personally deliver the funds to the family. They were also able to meet with other colleges and talk with various community organizers in Haiti. He is currently interning at the Jail Diversion Program (JDP) at the Pinellas County Public Defender’s office. After graduation, he plans on getting his LCSW and hopefully will be able to continue to work with JDP in his future career. Chris can be contacted at cdkoester@mail.usf.edu.

First of all, tell us about the Northeast Himalayas in India study abroad trip. What did the program do, and what did you study?

This trip was part of a 6-credit clinical social work course that allowed students to immerse in an indigenous culture and context. We spent the majority of time at a research institute called RIWATCH which stands for Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions Cultures and Heritage (designated as the Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development by the United Nations). It was located in the Northeastern most part of India called Arunachal Pradesh – a part of India that shares borders with Tibet, Myanmar and Bhutan. RIWATCH’s mission in Northeast India is to preserve the local endangered indigenous tribes’ culture, rituals, and heritage. We had enriching interactions with local school children; social workers; local politicians and activists; researchers; tea plantation workers; members of local women’s empowerment groups; government officials responsible for programs related to maternal and child health, education, HIV, and domestic violence; local administrators and military personnel, and; interacted with the local physicians in the district hospital. For example, one eye-opening exercise that Dr. Carrion led was to form pairs with one member from the indigenous group and one study abroad student and we exchanged notes about our cultures, life, challenges, health issues, social issues etc. and then both the members shared their notes with everyone. We visited the homes of local families belonging to the Idu Mishmi tribe, had traditional food at their homes, visited monasteries, participated in local festivals and rituals and learnt about their lifestyle, and also observed focus groups that Drs. Joshi and Carrion conducted with local women as part of their research study on maternal and child health practices and end of life issues in the local tribal communities. We were also able to visit a few temples, shrines, and religious ceremonies to experience a few of the many religious and spiritual places and people in India. It was interesting to observe the ways in which influences from the neighboring countries affect the practices of people in this region. Some practice Thai and others practice Tibetan stream of Buddhism; many are nature worshippers and some others follow Hinduism or Christianity.

As part of the program, we also participated in a service learning exercise in collaboration with the officials and staff of the government district hospital and cleaned the premises of the newly constructed maternal and child health wing of the hospital. In addition, we participated in a tree plantation drive at the local government secondary school in which we were joined by local government leaders and school teachers. Our service learning projects were also covered by the local media – for details please see: http://www.arunachaltimes.in/wordpress/2014/05/25/usf-students-take-part-in-cleanliness-drive/

Finally, our journey culminated with a visit to the breathtaking Taj Mahal and shops in local markets and stores.

Why would you recommend that students try a non-traditional location such as India?

This trip was one of the most eye opening experiences of my life! This trip was in no way a vacation but rather an intense learning experience that challenged students on many different levels. I understand those students who would like to travel to countries in Europe and have that experience but if you truly want to be immersed in a culture that is much different from the Western or American culture; this is a trip you will want to take. This trip will force students out of their comfort zones and challenge their world view of life perspectives. It is not a trip for everyone but for those who are up to the challenge and open to new experiences. I highly recommend they apply for this trip. It is an invaluable experience that may change you and you will never forget.

Continue reading