From Village Schools to the Dalai Lama: UNC Asheville Students Visit India

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UNC Asheville students pose with the Dalai Lama

For the group of students who traveled to India to study abroad over the winter break, learning begins at the end of their comfort zone.

“It’s important to go outside our limited Western perspective and see what the world has to offer,” said junior Haddas Baron, who traveled with her classmates and Sonia Kapur, assistant professor of international studies, to both urban and rural areas in India for three and a half weeks.

“I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone,” said Kayla Taylor, also a junior. “Being uncomfortable is a catalyst for change and growth, and learning something new.” Taylor said sleeping in mosquito netting and learning to use a squat toilet were definitely outside of her comfort zone. “But I definitely appreciated that experience... It was good to struggle and learn about yourself.”

During their trip, the group saw some major monuments and tourist attractions—the Taj Mahal, the Ganges River, Gandhi’s home, the bustling city markets. But they also took time to explore deeper into India’s culture.

The class spent time in rural villages, and visited an NGO focused on women’s health and education.

“I was empowered by being with them,” said senior Sydney McRoy. “They were immediately empowering because they were intelligent and knew what they needed for themselves, and knew what needed to happen in the community. They were very vocal with us in explaining their situations.”

The experience held some surprises, as well, helping the students to look beyond their expectations and complicating their idea of what life for women in rural India might be like.

“From this Western perspective about going to this lower class rural community and meeting these women, you have all these thoughts about what it’s going to be like,” McRoy said. “And then all these women are telling you they have their bachelor’s. They’re halfway through their master’s. And it’s just these certain things that are holding them back from furthering it.”

The group also visited several village schools, and met with the students there. “The first one we went to included 80 or so children that all expressed their love for education,” said Baron. “They expressed how they didn’t want to go on break, because they were sad not to learn anymore.”

A particular highlight of the trip included the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak at an international conference on philosophy, and even meet and take a photograph with him.

“He was like a grandpa. He’s really charming and sweet, and not intimidating” Taylor said. “He had a lot of say about mindfulness and compassion and Buddhist philosophy.”

Of the many experiences and memories the group brought back with them from their adventures in India, the sound of the Dalai Lama’s laughter stands out.

“He laughed a lot,” McRoy said.