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Students, faculty explore social work and culture in India

After a rocky weather-related start, more than two dozen students and faculty members landed in India over the winter holidays for a two-week educational tour of the country’s culture, system of social work and evolving economy. Photo Gallery

The Dec. 26 through Jan. 8 trip was the School of Social Work’s first study abroad experience to India and included 28 participants, 14 of whom were from UNC’s social work program. The remaining included four Carolina undergraduate students and others from universities across the country.

Although an East Coast blizzard slightly delayed travel plans, participants remained in great spirits and were equally enthusiastic about studying in the world’s largest democracy, said Dan Hudgins, a School clinical instructor and one of the program’s leaders.

“I think there was a lot of interest in this trip because we’ve never done it before and because I think people recognize that India, like China, is one of the emerging powers in the world,” Hudgins said.

Much of the trip, which included travel to Mumbai, Pune, Jaipur and Ahmednagar in the state of Maharashtra, was divided into morning workshops followed by afternoon visits to civil society organizations (CSOs). Host universities – TATA Institute of Social Sciences, Maharashtra Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Government, and the Centre for Studies in Rural Development (Institute of Social Work & Research) – offered lectures to strengthen participants’ understanding of India’s ancient and modern history, religion and economics.

“The one thing I was very impressed with was how open everybody was about India’s problems,” Hudgins noted. “There was no attempt to cover up the challenges they have – the environmental problems they face, the legacy of the caste system and the rapid change in the structure of families.”

The study abroad trip and others to come are part of a growing academic partnership the School hopes to forge with India’s universities. While at MIT, School of Social Work leaders signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the institute as part of an agreement to collaborate on international research and to create opportunities for faculty and student exchanges. Other universities expressed interest in partnering with the School as well, said Rebecca Brigham, the director of the School’s field education program and a study abroad leader.

“I really think this trip strengthened our commitment to the universities because they saw that we are very serious about working with them,” she said.

A significant portion of the trip was dedicated to India’s system of social work. Students and faculty members visited some of the country’s CSOs to learn first-hand how these organizations are addressing child welfare, poverty, mental health, homelessness, commercial sex trafficking and human rights issues.

Over the course of their travels, participants visited the Residential School for Blind Girls; Ekalavya Nyasa, a residential facility for the street children of commercial sex workers; Maher, a residential agency for traumatized women and their children; Apala Ghar, an old age home, orphanage and rural training center; and Shelter Associates, a community development agency of architects and social workers that is using Google Maps to identify slums in India and to connect residents to resources.

All of the organizations were inspiring, said Jeannie Dickson, a first-year student in the School’s Triangle Distance Education Program. “Even with few resources and overwhelming need, the human spirit is so strong and resilient.”

The broad itinerary was designed to give students and faculty a complete picture of India, including its overwhelming beauty and severe poverty, Brigham said.

“India is a huge country of contrasts,” she said. “The people are beautiful, the colors are amazing, the architecture and the history and the culture are so fascinating, and then there’s the poverty. You see women out in rural areas doing their laundry on rocks next to rivers where they bathe. You see the slums, and it’s right there, and you’ve got to deal with it.”

One of the most memorable moments occurred in a rural village in Ahmednagar. There, participants learned how faculty and students from the master of social work program at the Centre for Studies in Rural Development have been working for 30 years to help transform the village into a successful farming community.

“We spent an entire afternoon in this village,” Brigham said. “We lunched with the villagers, we saw their schools, and we toured their homes. For them, it seemed as though it was a fun way of introducing culture to our students.”

Such an immersion also showed participants that even though India is still developing, the country has much to offer, added Betsy Bledsoe, an assistant professor at the School.

“The great thing about the trip is it wasn’t something that we looked at, ‘What can we offer them?’ We really went with an idea of partnering and an idea of what we could learn from them. I think many of our students came away with valuable insights into how practice in the U.S. and policy in the U.S. could benefit from what’s being done in India.”

For Sarah Smith, a second-year student in the School’s Mountain Area Distance Education Program, the entire trip was “educational, exciting, eye-opening and life changing.”

“I learned first-hand that social justice issues do not discriminate among cultures,” she said. “Each culture (and country) has its challenges and strengths. Each culture and country has something beautiful and beneficial to offer, and we are one another’s best teachers and best resources.”

To show their appreciation for all of the host agencies, students offered monetary gifts amounting to about $500 each. Students raised the money through sales of baked goods, jewelry and T-shirts as part of a required service project for the study abroad program.

With such a successful experience behind them, School officials have already begun to think about and plan for the next trip, Brigham said.

“I think we provided a very meaningful educational experience to our students,” she said. “I believe that our relationships with our university partners are strengthened significantly and that there are realistic  opportunities for us to partner with agencies and universities in India down the road.”