Photo: Lainie Kokas, 2008The Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan offers a special opportunity to undergraduate students to chart their own course in India every summer. A generous endowed gift to the center by an anonymous donor has made it possible for 6-7 undergraduate students to design their own projects and travel to India on a fellowship annually. The fellowship program, called Summer in South Asia, is meant for students who have not had prior exposure to India. The idea is for the students to go with an open mind and a sense of discovery. The hope is that through their immersive experiences, they will come back with a new vision and understanding about another part of the world, thus making them more informed, sensitive and experienced world citizens, apart from significant personal growth.
Some student comments:
"It was indeed a life changing experience, and one that I will never forget...I hope that you realize what a difference you've made in all of our lives."
"At times it was challenging but upon reflection I realize that all of the challenges were as educational as the research I did and the projects I worked on."
"I certainly miss India and all of the amazing people I had the privilege of working with, and I intend to return someday soon!"
Photo: Lainie Kokas, 2008The program encourages a strong service component and the students are urged to think about how they can make a difference to the organizations or people they will work with. At the same time, the work is connected to what the students are studying at UM, thus offering tremendous potential for experiential learning. The program is unique because it offers flexibility to the students to customize their projects to their interests, skills and passion, and to that extent it is completely driven by the students themselves who do all the preparatory work such as conceptualizing the projects, contacting the NGOs in India to work with, setting up the logistics and all travel arrangements, and finally reporting on their work in a symposium in the Fall.
The best projects receive funding to cover all the costs. Though primarily student-driven by design, the Center does assist the students in thinking through their ideas, making some contacts with organizations in India, communication with people in India and also preparing for the trip by providing information on what to expect culturally, health and safety tips, etc. Often, faculty members associated with the Center provide guidance to students as they conceptualize their projects. The Center stays in touch with the organizations that the students work at and collects their feedback in order to evaluate the usefulness of the students' work.
Photo: Caleb Heyman, 2009Now in its fifth year, this program has been extremely successful in providing the students with valuable, life-changing experiences. This program not only complements the students' academic course of study but also provides them with insights about a very different region of the world in a hands-on manner. Students almost always come back with fabulous experiences, exciting stories of initial difficulties but eventually making meaningful connections with the people they work with, and a sense of having experienced something significant. Many times, this experience proves to be the initial spark that leads to a lifelong connection with India and many go back in the future to work there or pursue their interest academically.
Photo: Rory Crook, 2009Over the years, the projects have spanned a wide range both in terms of the geographical location and the nature of the projects. More than 140 students have applied to this program and between 2006 and 2009, 24 students have completed their work in India on this fellowship. The students have majored in Anthropology, Political Science, Sociology, Nursing, History, Ecology and Environmental Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Economics, Kinesiology, Business Administration, etc., with an equally wide range of project topics.
In the next few weeks, I plan to feature a few of the interesting and meaningful projects on this blog. Please come back and read about them!