Anthropologist’s view of UI’s INDIA Winterim

The following are excerpts from a piece written by Meena Khandelwal, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa. She spent three weeks over the winter break of 2009 teaching a course in India for the INdIA Winterim program. The INdIA Winterim program is 3-week course taught in India as a result of collaboration between University of Iowa instructors and Indian grassroots nonprofit organizations. This piece was originally written for the 2009 UI Department of Anthropology newsletter.

By Meena Khandelwal

group of women in India

After 15 years of teaching about South Asia in the classroom, I took a group of students to India for a three week study abroad course entitled International Development: Gender and Justice.

This was part of the Winter in India Program, launched by Professor Rajagopal (UI Geography) three years ago.  The program is quickly gaining attention on campus and nationally.  Most anthropologists value study abroad, for we believe in the value of long-term engagement with a culture, participation in the activities of daily life, language study, and, yes, even culture shock.

The Winter in India Program is different from conventional study abroad programs, including UI’s own Semester-in-Mysore Program, in that it has a short three week time frame and student groups are hosted by, and work with, Indian NGOs.  Last winter, I decided to suspend my concerns that the short program allows no time for serious preparatory learning about the place one is visiting and take the plunge. I proposed a course…

…. Working with NGOs was also a new experience for me.  While I teach about development and the non-profit sector in several courses, the experience of talking with and shadowing NGO staff members prompted daily dialogue among those in our group about the relationship between academic analysis and development practice.

India has a very vibrant and active NGO sector, and Professor Rajagopal’s tireless efforts to identify non-profit organizations in India willing to provide the labor needed to host visitors from Iowa has enabled the involvement of faculty with no previous expertise in the region; faculty from urban planning, nursing, studio arts and a range of other fields led courses on a range of topics. …

… My group was hosted by the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD), an initiative of the Des Moines-based Sehgal Foundation…. My students were specifically interested in gender, but learning about IRRAD’s work helped them to expand previous notions of “women’s issues” based on a US-centric perspective.

Why would one establish a school for girls who must spend five hours a day fetching water for daily use?  In what sense is water a gendered issue in Mewat and elsewhere? By observing IRRAD’s work at a life skills center for girls, a health training session to promote safe childbirth, and a good governance training session, we learned that change happens in small, incremental steps…..

…Some moments were very moving, as when one of my students, Kristie Fortmann-Doser, explained to villagers (via an interpreter) about the Domestic Violence Intervention Project (DVIP) hotline service we have in Iowa City. The women listened intently and then an elderly woman stood up to bless the student and to ask for Kristie’s own phone number that she could call if the need arose.  She did not understand that we lived in another country and that our phone numbers were useless to her.  …

… The students and I learned so much from participating in the Winter in India course. Professor Rajagopal’s willingness to experiment means that not only do more Iowans know something about India, but also that many more people in India have now heard of Iowa! As the program develops, efforts are being made to enroll Indian students in these courses as well. The challenge as the program moves forward will be to offer students sufficient preparatory education and to ensure that the experience also serves the interests of the NGOs that so generously agree to host students from the US and to share their expertise and time.

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