For most students at the University of Iowa, winter break is a time to unwind, visit with family and indulge in a well-deserved Netflix binge while curled up with a cup of hot cocoa.
But for others like Victor Diaz, it was an opportunity to make a difference – to embark on a journey to Pondicherry, India for a three-week study abroad course, Serving Children with Disabilities, Empowering Local Women, Assisting Older Adults.
Victor Diaz, now a junior at the UI studying linguisitics, visits the Matrimandir during his time in India.
As part of the course, he observed the physical therapy and special education initiatives many non-profit organizations have implemented in order for these otherwise unwelcome individuals to develop academically or vocationally so that they can integrate into society more able-bodied and prepared. Through these interactions and observations, he learned more about the importance of communication - especially cross-culturally and cross linguistically.
"Seeing how these instructors created such a welcoming environment for these children made me not only more excited to have my own classroom one day, but it also specified my interest to work with languages and become an effective dual language instructor in the future," Diaz, now a junior at the UI, said.
But Diaz especially valued the lessons he learned outside of the classroom.
“Studying abroad in India gave me more insight on the meaning of diversity and how multifaceted it can be from country to country,” Diaz said.
"In America, we are taught that diversity, for the most part, is mostly visual like race. But in India, they have diversity within cultures, religions, languages, race, as well as geographically and historically. Yet, everyone comes together despite those differences."
The intensive field-based course is part of the India Winterim Program, which has provided transformative learning experiences and opportunities through 50+ courses for over 1,000 students – undergraduate, graduate, and professional. Each course is led by one or two UI faculty members and is partnered with an Indian non-profit organization employing a variety of techniques to address contemporary societal problems.
These faculty members help prepare students before departure and accompany each group for the duration, offering support, guidance, and opportunities for reflection.
“We strive to create opportunities for majors less commonly represented in study abroad, like engineering and the health sciences. We also provide scholarships and support resources for students from diverse backgrounds to help foster inclusion,” Autumn Tallman, associate director of Study Abroad, said.
“For any student who feels uncertain about traveling so far away to an unfamiliar place, it is a big plus to be able to establish a rapport with the program leaders and other participants before departure and have the opportunity to continue processing the experience with them after returning to campus.”
With topics like arts and architecture, education, entrepreneurship, healthcare, journalism, social work, and more, there’s a course for everyone.
“English is spoken in every part of India; therefore, students and faculty from all fields of study are encouraged to explore and participate,” Geographical and Sustainability Sciences Professor Raj Rajagopal, founder of the program, said.
2016 has been a banner year for India Winterim, crossing a milestone of 1,000 participants over the last 10 years.
Rajagopal attributes the program’s success to a “four-legged stool” – UI faculty members with a strong desire to expand their research and teaching horizons in an international context, award-winning partner organizations in India, the support of campus administrators and staff and, of course, highly-motivated students.
“Valuable lessons can be learned by closely observing and studying the inner-workings of organizations that have achieved a reputation for excellence in service,” Rajagopal said.
It all started in 2006, when a large tsunami hit coastal India. Thousands of people – men, women, children – were carried off into the ocean and never seen again.
Rajagopal was visiting his sister at the time, who urged him to do something to help. Shortly after, he got connected with the Disaster Recovery Institute, a non-profit that helps organizations around the world prepare for and recover from a variety of natural disasters. He knew the man in charge, a physician named Sethu Raman – they had been neighbors years ago.
The two got together at Raman’s home on a July afternoon.
“I said I wanted to know what I could do to help people like he was doing,” Rajagopal said. “I asked him why he was a doctor and what he was getting from bringing blankets to people in the tsunami.”
Normally, Raman was a surgeon – but he gave up his career to become a social worker.
Rajagopal and International Programs Assistant Provost Doug Lee accepting the Heiskell Award from IIE President and CEO Alan Goodman at a ceremony in Davis, California.
“I could cut into someone’s body for four to six hours, and help one person as a surgeon,” Raman explained to Rajagopal. “Or, I could use the same amount of time to help thousands of people as a social worker.”
The conversation went on for hours as they discussed everything from food and life stories to religion and politics. Rajagopal learned that Raman was getting involved in a concept referred to as microfinance – a small loan of money provided to people who want to get on their feet and start their own shop.
He explained it this way: A poor woman in India will obtain four bundles of cane from a shop owner and he will teach her how to weave a basket. She will work all day to produce 20 baskets – and he will only give her 50 cents for those baskets.
Most of these women didn’t have jobs or credit history. They couldn’t apply for the funding they needed to keep themselves afloat, even if they had the best skills in the world.
But a man named Muhammad Yunus changed that. With $40, he gave 10 women $4 apiece to purchase the yarn, cane, and flowers they needed to make their own products. Once they received the income they needed, he asked for $5 in return in order to help even more people.
Professor Karla Alvarez during the India Winterim course, Serving Children with Disabilities, Empowering Local Women, Assisting Older Adults.
Rajagopal learned that Yunus’ work has impacted over 400,000 women – and continues to do so today.
“Can we meet some of them?” Rajagopal asked.
“Why not?” Raman responded.
“I don’t want to promise you anything, but could I bring 20-25 students from back home to help?”
23 students were recruited for the first year of India Winterim, learning more about how non-profit organizations are run..
Ten years later, the tradition goes on strong.
Some students feel that in order to study abroad, they have to know the country's language or history, Rajagopal explained.
"I said, 'Let's remove those constraints. Let's give students three weeks of time and a UI professor who is excited about the subject and will go abroad with them."
Ultimately, the goal is for them to find a connecting point, to spark an interest in a culture separate from their own.
“All of these students go on to succeed because they have broader visions of society than they did before,” Rajagopal said.
“The program opens the mind to a newer imagination.”
This year, India Winterim was the recipient of the prestigious 2016 Institute of International Education (IIE) Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education. It was also featured by the IIE Network as a “best practice” in international education.
On March 11, Rajagopal and International Programs Assistant Provost Doug Lee accepted the award at the IIE ceremony in Davis, California.