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India study combines inspirational beauty and painful realities

Weeks after returning from a two-week study abroad trip to India, School of Social Work students and faculty are still lingering over their experiences in a country that offers visitors a mixture of inspirational beauty and the painful realities of poverty.

“Every time I go, I feel like my life is changed as I learn more about the Indian culture and my own reactions to it,” said Rebecca Brigham, the director of the School’s field education program and a study abroad leader. “You can’t go on this kind of trip and do everything that we do and it not impact you. The relationships that we make with the people there and the insights that we gain make the trip feel very special. We all grow together in our understanding and appreciation of India and in ourselves.”

This was the second year that the School has embarked on an educational tour of India, which included stops in Mumbai, Pune, Ahmednagar, and Aurangabad. Eighteen students and faculty, mainly from UNC and nearby universities, participated in the Dec. 26 through Jan. 8 trip. Betsy Bledsoe, a School assistant professor, and Mary Beth Hernandez, the School’s associate dean for advancement, joined Brigham as study abroad leaders.

Participants had the opportunity to sightsee during their travels and even had the chance to meet with the great grandson of Mahatma Ghandi, Tushar Gandhi. But most of their two-week immersion involved attending workshops and visiting nonprofit agencies. TATA Institute of Social Sciences, the Maharashtra Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Government and the Centre for Studies in Rural Development all hosted the American students and faculty and provided lectures on a variety of social justice issues, including community organizing, mental health services in India, and women’s empowerment. Participants also visited with more than a dozen of the country’s civil society organizations (CSOs), which play a critical role in delivering services that address, among other things, child welfare, homelessness, and health care needs.

Because this year’s trip focused more on rural India, students and faculty were able to see first-hand some of the vital work that some agencies are doing to promote health and socioeconomic development. For example, during a stop in the village of Jamkhed, participants toured the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, a nonprofit organization that empowers women by teaching them basic health education skills. These women then take what they’ve learned, including information on reproductive health, and share it with their neighbors to help improve their communities.

“What was interesting about this model is that because these women now have power through education and knowledge, their own position in the village has changed,” Brigham explained. “One of the women had become the mayor of her village, which is significant in a community that values more patriarchal leadership. At Jamkhed, there was a lot of discussion about how not only healthcare outcomes have in the villages improved but also how the villagers own lives have been transformed.”

An overnight stay on New Year’s Eve at Apala Ghar—a residence for homeless, elderly adults and children and rural training center—was especially rewarding, Brigham said. Students and faculty sang songs and played games with the 40 or so orphaned children there and then shared a meal with all of the home’s residents, including about 10 seniors.

“The American students learned to serve the meal, which was such a rewarding and mutual experience,” Brigham said. “It was very humbling. Then, after we learned to serve the residents, they got up, and we sat down and they served us. It was very much a ‘we’re-all-here-on-this planet together’ kind of experience.”

A few students said they were inspired to see just how committed so many of the country’s nonprofits are to improving the lives of those in need.

“The thing that stands out clearly in my mind is that social work varies greatly from community to community, and that outcomes are largely the result of the compassion, creativity and understanding that the social workers bring to the work,” said Jenny Gadd, a first year student in the School’s Triangle Distance Education Program.

Gadd said she was especially impressed to see how organizations are filling gaps and meeting needs, despite limited funding and infrastructure.

“… The many examples of social work practice that we saw on our trip were effective and often surpassed the outcomes we see in the states,” she added.

“These challenges were overcome with creativity and a strong commitment to provide community appropriate solutions, often involving the person in need as part of the solution and its sustainability.”

Getting students to think critically about social problems in India and how they relate to social problems in the United States is one of the goals of the study abroad program, Brigham said. Developing cultural competence and a greater worldview is also an important part of the learning experience.

“This can be a difficult trip seeing many poor and homeless people and for most of our students, they begin to think about their own lives and their own feelings of difference and identity,” Brigham said. “They think about who they are as people, and reexamine where they fit in in the world.”

Julia Wessel, a first year student in the School’s full-time MSW program, is still trying to process the trip and the numerous questions that arose for her as a future practitioner. She wants to work with children and families, but she found herself torn when comparing needs in India to those in the United States.

“It will take me a while to reconcile this, but I know that I’m still on the right path and will do good in the world…” she said. “This lesson, to me, is why these trips are so important. I don’t think everyone is cut out to or interested in working internationally, but traveling and experiencing social work abroad can greatly influence one’s educational and professional experience in America.”

Gadd agreed.

“These types of trips are very important to a well-rounded social work education because it puts our perspective on its side and flips it upside down,” she said. “It demands that we remove our American lens and see things in a different spectrum, which in turn, allows us to have our eyes more fully open when we return to our everyday practices. This refocusing of perspective stays with you for a lifetime.”