First impressions can be powerful, but they don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Just ask Peter Woo and Dan Read about their thoughts as they arrived in Mumbai and got their first glimpse of India.
“India’s a pretty overwhelming place,” said Woo, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame.
“It was complete chaos, and there were so many people and it was so loud, all the cars and everything,” Carleton College senior Read added. “It takes your breath away.”
Peter Woo (right) with a Maitri site supervisor in Melghat (center) and a farmer whom Peter interviewed.
Photo courtesy of Peter Woo
For both Woo and Read, those first impressions soon were joined by many other vivid impressions – particularly the warmth of the people they met and the peacefulness of life in villages far from the urban bustle – as they embarked on the ACM India Summer Program: Service Learning & Cultural Immersion.
The two students also found that their service learning projects gave them opportunities to engage in substantive work that has influenced their academic paths since they returned to their college campuses.
Following an orientation with ACM staff in the city of Pune, the program takes students to villages in the remote Melghat region to experience rural life. There, they learn about projects related to health and nutrition, education, the environment, and economic development that are sponsored by Maitri, a volunteer-based, non-governmental organization (NGO) which is ACM’s service learning partner.
For the rest of the program, students participate in service learning placements with community-based projects set up by Maitri or one of its affiliated local NGOs. Students can choose to return to the urban setting of Pune for their placement or remain in the rural villages of Melghat. Both Woo and Read chose the rural option.
“We were able to go to a place where I think a normal study abroad program wouldn’t have taken you,” said Read. “I’m an anthropology major, so going to the villages was somewhere where I could try out things that I had learned in class in real life.”
“One of the attractions of the program was they have the contact with the NGO that’s actually in the area,” Woo added. “If you walk in there as a tourist, it’s going to be a very different experience than joining with an NGO and working with them.”
Research in India led to a senior project
Read was among four students who participated in summer 2010, the program’s inaugural year. The experience was so compelling that he returned to Melghat this past summer, making his own arrangements through Maitri to be in India at the same time as the 2011 program participants.
“The first summer, Maitri gave me a project of trying to write down as much history of the villagers as I could, because most of them are not literate,” Read recalled. “I was doing that and I was talking to a lot of elderly villagers.”
Dan Read (right) conducting an interview in Melghat.
Photo courtesy of Dan Read
Through those conversations, he learned about the reserve in Melghat created by the Indian government during the early 1970s to protect wild tigers. Development – such as roads, logging, and electricity – was restricted within the reserve, which affected the villagers’ livelihoods and made them even more isolated from larger towns and cities.
“When I got to that part about the tiger reserve being created, I got really interested because that’s when everybody was saying things started to go badly [economically], so I wanted to come back and study that more in depth,” Read continued. “I think not only my interest in that issue, but also the relationships that I had built with the villagers and with staff at the NGOs and the ACM office in India – they were just people that I really wanted to see again.”
Back at Carleton during the 2010-11 school year, Read worked with his professors to design a research project he could carry out in Melghat when he returned the following summer. His plan was to find out how the rules and regulations inside the tiger reserve were affecting the residents economically.
“I think it was a huge advantage for me [in summer 2011] that I had already built the relationships the previous summer,” he said. “People recognized me instantly and remembered my name, so I had an easier time going up to people and talking to them.”
Read’s research in Melghat, in conjunction with other research he’s conducted on the tiger reserve and its residents, is the basis of his senior project in his major. He will wind that up this winter term with a presentation and a 40-page paper. In the meantime, said Read, he’s been applying to go to graduate school to study anthropology and hopes to be able to continue his research in Melghat.
Business project examines village economy and debt
An India Summer Program participant in 2011, Woo was contacted by Maitri staff before he arrived in India to talk about his interests and possible projects. “I told them that I was a business major interested in economics and they suggested to me that I look into the debt problem that the villagers were going through, and I just hopped onto that,” he said.
India Summer 2011 participants, their interpreters, and Dan Read at the Maitri site in Melghat.
Photo courtesy of Peter Woo
Woo explained that he talked to a variety of people – shopkeepers, blacksmiths, and farmers – to learn about the village economy, to gain an understanding of the residents’ borrowing patterns and reasons for going into debt, and to suggest future Maitri projects that could help the villagers.
“It’s a pretty involved topic and it’s pretty personal at the same time, because in any culture you wouldn’t just talk about your financial situation with a stranger,” Woo noted. “Most of the information I was able to gather probably came in the last week, where I was out there in the villages and they kind of knew me better and trusted me more than when they first saw me. So it required a lot of relationship building, and that’s one big thing I learned.”
His experience on the program has given Woo a perspective on other areas that he might like to study, such as sociology. “I really felt the need and the advantages of being able to do what Dan [Read] does, so to speak – to analyze societies and find causes,” he said. “I think that’s really important as a business person as well, because we need to understand how our operations affect society at large and any social mechanics we need to be aware of before we make business decisions.”
Relationships were central to the experience
Returning to the first impressions and lasting impressions for Woo and Read, both said that their relationships with people they met were central to their experiences in India.
A game of duck-duck-goose.
Photo courtesy of Dan Read
“For me, most evenings were spent playing with a lot of the kids in the village,” said Read. “We would do games like tug-of-war and duck-duck-goose and that was a really nice way to end the day after working…. I developed such a good relationship with the kids that I went back.”
Woo observed that his understanding of India was enriched by the time he spent in Pune and by getting to know the Maitri interpreters in Melghat, many of whom were college students or recent graduates from the city.
Going to the villages “was an eye-opening experience for [the interpreters] as well, being from the city and they were pretty wealthy compared to other Indians,” he said. “Seeing the different perspective that they could offer to us was pretty cool. We got to be close friends with the interpreters, and they would invite us to dinners in Pune and show us around the city. It’s not just about the villagers, but also learning about the perspective of people who are in the cities.”