Study Abroad Old and New: India and Malawi
College of Arts & Sciences
Asian studies faculty members Afroz Taj and John Caldwell reached a major milestone this summer — celebrating two decades of taking UNC-Chapel Hill students on a study abroad experience to India.
The UNC Summer in India program is one of the longest-running faculty-led programs offered to U.S. college students. Taj and Caldwell have led about 300 students through the program over 20 consecutive years.
Taj first left his home country of India 37 years ago, but he says the experience of returning there with students never gets boring. Each year is fun and different.
“Whenever I go, I see India as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I don’t get burned out because I take different people with me, and I see India through their eyes,” he said. “When I enter a temple with students, I see it as if it is new.”
The two colleagues first met in the mid-1980s while doing graduate work at the University of Michigan. Years later, they both came to UNC. In 1999, they took their first 14 students to India. They were looking for a way to create a meaningful immersion opportunity for students to practice the Hindi language.
“As an educator, it’s the most rewarding thing to watch students go through this life-changing experience,” Caldwell said. Many of the students have never been outside the United States. “Students get a radical re-evaluation of what they’ve been thinking about India.”
The course structure has evolved over the years. Fourteen students took three courses during this summer’s six-week experience — “Contested Souls: Introduction to Indian Literature and Culture,” “Journalism and Society in India” (a highlight is a visit to the BBC bureau in Delhi) and “Hindi Conversation and Script.” The language course is designed to be accessible for beginners as well as challenging for more advanced learners.
“This trip deepened my global experience immensely, more than I ever could have imagined. We didn’t see a filtered India, and I think our entire group is really proud of that,” said Alex Zietlow, a senior journalism and political science major. “We didn’t see all of India, but what we saw, undoubtedly, was authentic — from the ashrams in Haridwar to the street markets in Aligarh to the Taj Mahal in Agra.”
Junior English major Madison Haynes participated in the program through a Phillips Ambassador scholarship. It was her first time leaving the country; she didn’t even have a passport until a few months before the trip.
“I now know more of Indian history, journalism and Hindi than I did before I went on the study abroad experience, from the perspective of simple knowledge acquisition,” she said. “However, on a deeper level, I began to appreciate the difference between knowing and understanding. I could have taken those three classes back in Chapel Hill and gained the same knowledge, however I think through experience we understand better.”
Students spend about three weeks in New Delhi, the vibrant political and cultural capital of India, with multiple excursions, including an extended stay in Jaipur (the “Pink City.”) They also participate in two-night homestays with Indian families.
Allie Day, a junior psychology and sociology major, especially enjoyed the homestays: “Radical hospitality was apparent in all of my interactions with Indian families.”
“The best experiences for me involved meeting strangers who quickly became friends,” she added. “My classmate and I stayed with a husband and wife, and our ‘auntie’ took us in to make sure we were comfortable, well-fed and properly dressed. They also took us around their village, welcoming us into their house and showing us around the market.”
Even though Rohan Patel is of Indian descent and had visited Gujarat, India, when he was 6, he said this study abroad experience forced him to step outside his comfort zone — something the professors say is important.
On each excursion, the students were required to engage strangers in Hindi conversation.
“My upbringing in America made it a small challenge to talk to others on a whim,” said Patel, a sophomore biology major who is pursuing minors in Hindi and neuroscience. “But I learned the value of taking risks in experiences abroad.”
Zietlow said the ultimate highlight was getting to know Taj and Caldwell not only as scholars, but as people.
“We ate with them every day. We had conversations with them every day that ranged from random trivia about Indian fashion and Bollywood films to in-depth discussions about how gender equality/human rights fit into deeply embedded Indian cultural realities like romance, religion and politics.”
Senior political science major Aja Crayton calls her time in Malawi “magical.”
It was the first study abroad experience for Crayton, who is interested in careers in both medicine and politics.
“Academically, personally and professionally, I learned something new every day,” Crayton said. “American media often try to put all African countries in one box, as if they make up one big country, when in reality Africa is a continent filled with diverse, rich and breathtaking cultures and people.”
Thirteen students experienced the new six-week UNC Summer in Malawi program, led by Eunice Sahle, associate professor and chair of the department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies (AAAD). The program was split between Lilongwe and Zomba, with students taking courses in “Human Rights in Africa: Theories and Practices” and a regional seminar, “Transitions to Democratic Governance in Malawi and Other Parts of Southern Africa.”
While in Lilongwe, they were based at the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), one of Malawi’s leading NGOs. In Zomba, they were hosted by the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. Students had internships and visited sites including Parliament and UNC Project-Malawi, a research, care and training program established by Carolina and the Malawi Ministry of Health in 1999.
Crayton, who is pursuing a minor in African American and Diaspora Studies, had internships with UNC Project-Malawi and CHRR. At CHRR, she and other students worked on drafting ideas and writing a proposal for a “50:50” campaign aimed at increasing women’s representation in politics as Malawians gear up for next year’s general elections. The proposal was recently awarded a $100,000 grant.
“I saw what I’d learned [in my coursework] shine through during the proposal writing,” Crayton said. “My time there helped me become a better person and human rights activist through class discussion, firsthand experiences and being surrounded by people who truly want to and are making a difference in the world.”
Sahle has been doing research in Malawi for over 20 years. She said creating the new study abroad program was a collaborative process, and she had lots of help from UNC and Malawi partners. She received support from Bruce Cairns, director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, Bob Miles, former associate dean of study abroad, and colleagues at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College early on in the planning process. A key goal was to make the program affordable, and a number of campus entities contributed to that effort so that each student received financial help.
“We have a very strong UNC footprint in terms of the health sciences in Malawi, but there was a gap in the social sciences and humanities,” she said. “We wanted to complement what we are already doing in the country.”
According to Sahle, this long relationship was very helpful during the students’ time in Lilongwe and Zomba.
“The opportunities that we had, such as internships for students and outstanding guest lectures in both seminars, would not have happened without that history,” she said. “Throughout our stay, we received tremendous support from UNC-Malawi Project’s Country Director Innocent Mofolo and numerous Malawian intellectuals, policymakers and civil society leaders.”
Angum Check, a senior philosophy and American studies major, said her summer in Malawi transformed her intellectually. She interned at the Women’s Legal Resources Centre.
“The courses I took during this program were some of the most challenging yet refreshing courses I have ever taken in my life,” said Check, who is also pursuing a minor in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). “The entire experience transformed the way I view academia as a discipline that does not have to be separate from advocacy and activism. The trip taught us to be critical and analytical about our presumptions and the lenses by which we view the world.”
At the end of the experience, sophomore Karly Smith said she felt like a real scholar. She appreciated the intellectual leaders and human rights activists who served as guest speakers for the program.
“Meeting people like that really reminded me how much one person can impact things,” said Smith, who is double majoring in sociology and AAAD with a minor in social and economic justice. She interned at the Southern African AIDS Trust. “It really impassioned me to continue to fight for justice even when I feel my voice is not being heard. … I am more confident in my ideas as an intellectual and how I can contribute to a conversation.”
Sahle said students were not the only ones who benefited from the trip — daily dialogues with Malawian colleagues enriched her teaching and research, too. She is also proud of the students’ contributions during their internships.
“One of my Malawian colleagues commented, ‘Wow, the students are so engaged. They are asking very good questions,’” she said. “They were able to translate what they were learning in class, to make a difference and to flourish as scholars.”
January 23, 2023