I came into college knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I was going to double major in political science and international affairs and study abroad twice. I knew I wanted to study in India at least once. I planned all of this out by the end of my freshman year, declared my first major in my first semester, and then flew off to Aix-en-Providence, France for my abroad program with the Institute of American Universities in the beginning of my sophomore year. Common requirements for studying abroad include having a GPA above 2.5 and being in your second year of school or more. My first reaction after coming home was, “Why am I not in France?” The experience had quite a strong effect on me, prompting two follow up trips back to France and the idea of studying abroad there again for another semester. I had to pursue a French minor because I felt at that point, monolingual was just embarrassing. Now seeing how influential France was on me, you can only imagine how life-altering studying abroad in India was.
After flip-flopping between spending another semester in France or heading off to India I finally decided to stick with my plan and pursue the unknown country. I had always felt connected to India since it was where my father was born and the place of origin of my name. It had been shrouded in mystery, only revealed through stories my father told of his childhood, grandparents who visited, and whatever showed up in books, television, or the internet. After my first study abroad experience, I knew there was only one way I wanted to experience a culture: to live it. I had family there that I had never met and I felt that going there would complete a journey or fulfill something I had yet to understand. Perhaps the last part is still true. I flew off to Jaipur, India for the School of International Training’s Sustainable Development and Social Change program with expectations I didn’t know I had. Processing such as experience takes time and I won’t life and say I fully understand how India has affected me or that I see my life clearer now, in fact it’s quite the opposite.
If there’s one thing for certain that India taught me, it is this: I know nothing. What I mean is that, this adventure has expanded my view of the world so vastly, that anything I knew before seems so miniscule to the knowledge that exists, I notice and see more. I question more. I’m more curious about everything. The endless possibilities shattered the ideas I had about what I wanted to do with my life because now I know there are so many things I can do and want to do. I wouldn’t have even known about these opportunities had I not traveled to the places I’ve been and met the people I did.
People always ask me, how was India? And I want to respond with, what do you want me to say? It was wonderful? No, I can’t say that. It was not wonderful. It was not terrible. It was challenging, exhilarating, frustrating, mind-boggling, breath taking, strange, beautiful… it was an experience. I could tell you about my daily routine of waking up every morning at 6 a.m. on a bed that felt as hard as stone, surrounded by sounds of honking horns and barking dogs. I would turn on a switch fifteen minutes before actually taking a shower so the water would be warm, if we had water at all that morning. I put on my brightly colored Indian clothing and walk downstairs to the smell of my breakfast, which was prepared by Sunita, the house help who lived in a small shack outside of the house with her two small children. We’d laugh as we tried to communicate through pantomiming and random words we knew in each other’s languages. I’d eat breakfast and drink chai while I waited for my friend’s to arrive so we could all take our auto-rickshaw to school. The drive was a mere 10 minutes and class started promptly at 8:30 a.m. with intensive Hindi classes. We’d have break for badminton, snacks, and lunch, then our other class for the day would begin. After our second class, which ended around 2 p.m., we would have the rest of the day to do as we please (which often involved homework, shopping, and more badminton).
I could tell you about all the amazing food that wasn’t always spicy and how many people I met refused to believe that an American could enjoy India, especially the food. I could tell you about having to turn my cheek to begging children covered in dirt, mothers cradling their babies to their chest as they knocked on my car window and watching crippled men crawl on the sidewalks next to business men pushing by on their cellphones. I could tell you about the daily challenge of negotiating prices with rickshaw drivers for a ride to school or shop vendors to buy clothing so I would fit in more. I could tell you how uncomfortable I felt wearing a kurta (long Indian skirt) in the mall while Indian teenagers giggled at us while they wore more stylish western clothing. I could attempt to explain the amazing warmth and hospitality I encountered time and time again by absolute strangers. I might dare to tell you about Indian train travel. I could tell you about the staring. I could go on and on explaining every experience I had in India and it would be filled with laughter paired with looks of horror, but in the end, all I really want to say is: there is no way to explain this experience. It cannot be replicated and I would not trade it for the world. I went to India thinking I knew how it would affect me and now I’m struggling to put it into words. I feel less complete than ever before and it’s okay. Yes, its unsettling, but it’s also freeing and exciting. I’ll say it: study abroad is the best experience college can offer, take advantage of it and see the world like you never have before. You won’t regret it.