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Spend a semester around the world

Observer Scene | Friday, October 31, 2003

Many Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College students, when asked about the best experiences of their college careers, would reminisce about football Saturdays and campus-wide snowball fights after the first snowfall of the year. It takes something really special to pull students away from an autumn on campus. But for the 39 students spending the semester in India on the Semester Around the World program, the sacrifice is more then worthwhile.

The chance to study in a variety of countries is one of the biggest benefits of studying at ND or SMC. The schools together offer programs in 20 countries, sending hundreds of students overseas every year. Although turning down bigger programs like London or Seville can be difficult when trying to choose where to study, the SAW program offers some students an opportunity they couldn’t find anywhere else. Over the past 20 years, SAW students have visited Taiwan, Nepal, Malaysia and a variety of other countries rarely included in school study programs. More importantly, the three months spent studying in India give students a chance to understand a country which is the center of one of the world’s major religions and home to 16 percent of the world’s population.

“The opportunity to go to countries like the ones we visit is so rare,” said junior Amy Peckins.

“It’s not going to be like ND moved to another country,” said junior Meredith Shepherd.

Semester Around the World was created by Cyriac Pullapilly, a professor of History at SMC who was born in southern India. Pullapilly first introduced the concept to SMC in 1975. It took eight years to work out the logistics of the trip and convince the College of the importance and value of the program.

“The program forces students to think about the cultures they meet and their own back home, making it necessary to create a balance,” Pullapilly said. “On SAW, the whole world becomes your home, not just a little corner of it.”

The result of Pullapilly’s planning is a program which takes students traveling around Asia for about two weeks and throughout India for three weeks before settling down for two months of classes in Cochin, a city on the southwest coast of India. Students focus entirely on India in their studies, learning about history, economics, philosophy, politics and fine arts. Their classes are at Sacred Heart College, a school founded and run by the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a religious congregation which runs more colleges and schools than any state government or organization in India. After finishing courses in early December, the students fly together to Frankfurt, where they split up to travel around Europe using the extra miles on their Around the World air tickets before returning home to start the next semester.

Only nine students applied for the first group Pullapilly took in the fall of 1983. Since then, interest has grown considerably. Over 80 students sent in applications last fall for this year’s program. Around 60 students were called for interviews and 39 were selected for the final group. The program is open to all students from SMC and ND, and occasionally to students from other colleges as well. High school graduate Katie Camillus plans to attend Swarthmore College next year but was invited to participate in the program because three of her sisters and one of her cousins had gone on the trip in previous years.

Due to the rigorous planning involved in carrying out such a complicated program, Pullapilly only takes a group every other fall. Since the first program 20 years ago, 11 groups have had the opportunity to participate.

The SAW experience is different for every group that goes on the trip. This year’s group was scheduled to visit China, Tibet and Vietnam, but plans were changed because of the SARS epidemic. Visits to Japan and Thailand were left on the itinerary, and Australia was added as a substitute for the other countries.

After meeting in Los Angeles, the group flew to Tokyo on Aug. 22 and spent two weeks traveling through various cities, including Kyoto, Brisbane, Cairns, Sydney, Bangkok and Phuket.

The students flew into Delhi on Sept. 4. They quickly grew accustomed to Indian traffic, a mixture of buses, mopeds, cars, bikes, pedestrians, cows and goats. They learned to use Indian-style toilets and adjusted to the instant notoriety that came with being American in India. In their three weeks of travel, the group visited Hindu temples and shrines across the country, the Ellora and Ajanta caves containing some of the oldest Buddhist art in the world, and saw such architectural wonders as the Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal. They also had the opportunity to meet with the Vatican Ambassador to India, ride elephants and stay in the breathtaking foothills of the Himalayas.

By the time the group reached Cochin, they had been traveling for 36 days and had been in 6 different countries, 32 cities, 13 airports, 4 train stations, 14 buses, 3 boats, 19 different hotels, and had spent about 50 hours in the air. Settling into a more normal day-to-day class schedule for the next two months was a relief for many students.

Traveling at a fast pace, although exciting, doesn’t always leave much room for in-depth understanding of the culture. To gain a greater understanding of Indian lifestyles, students spend at least one weekend living with host families. The visits show students some similarities and also some surprising differences between Indian and American lifestyles.

“I actually saw everything I ate alive before I ate it,” junior Andy DeVoto said.

“Even though I knew the family I was staying with was very rich, it wasn’t as luxurious as what I would have at home,” sophomore Erin Kriceri said.

Many students worry about being away from friends and family for an entire semester when they go abroad. Although being away from family is never easy, SAW students found they bonded quickly bargaining with Delhi street vendors and suffering through spicy foods. However, since Pullapilly accepts students from both ND and SMC, the guys going on SAW tended to find themselves a bit outnumbered. This year’s group includes 32 girls and only 7 guys.

“Sometimes it’s more like Shopping Around the World,” sophomore Eric Rocca joked.

Although the closeness of the group provides everyone with plenty of friends, people who like to meet the locals in bars and clubs can still find the program socially frustrating. Women are rarely seen buying alcohol in Cochin, and revealing clothing, even shorts, is out of the question. Although students find their 10:30 p.m. curfew at the hotel restrictive, there is rarely anywhere to go after that. Indian students often have parties in the middle of the day in order to get home for their own curfews, and many of the girls don’t socialize much outside of their families and classes.

SAW is not a program for the faint of heart – or those too attached to their hair dryers. Students who choose to participate find themselves halfway around the world, living for four months out of a suitcase which must weigh less than 44 pounds – not leaving much room for extra shoes or entire CD collections. Although students see many beautiful sights, others are far from glamorous. In a country where 26 percent of the people live below the poverty line, the group witnesses extreme cases of poverty and homelessness. As hard as this can be to handle, it plays an integral role in the life-changing experience of SAW.

“When you live in America, you learn that there’s poverty everywhere and you feel bad, but over here you don’t feel bad as much as understand it better,” said junior Erin Cox. “Living the Eastern life, you learn that everything doesn’t need to be Westernized. Being here makes you want to live a simpler life.”

Although the semester is filled with learning opportunities, it is still an academic sacrifice for some students. SMC refuses to accept SAW classes for religion, philosophy, government or economics requirements. Since all the students take the same classes, regardless of their different majors or backgrounds, the classes are designed as more of an overview of various subjects than an in-depth exploration of any topic. Some professors advise their students not to go for academic reasons. However, most students on the program feel they can learn as much from their travel experiences as they can in a South Bend classroom.

“Real education isn’t just reinforcement, but also the exposure to new ideas,” Pullapilly said.

“The unique aspect about SAW is that what we learn in the classroom, we also get to experience firsthand,” sophomore Sarah Nowak said. “Learning about these subjects back in South Bend will never compare to actually being here.”

With such a complicated travel itinerary which changes from year to year, there are unavoidable complications annually. Students pay an extra fee in addition to normal tuition which changes each year depending on travel plans. As with any country that lacks the fixed prices and sales regulations Americans are used to, students have to be careful about where they make major purchases and how much they pay. Going on SAW also involves extra immunizations and other medical concerns – remembering which day of the week to take anti-malaria pills can be harder than it sounds. Pictures from this year and the last two trips and more information about the trip can be found at www.saintmarys.edu/~world.

The future of SAW is still unclear. Pullapilly currently plans to take another group in the fall of 2005, but in future years the program may or may not continue. Since the program depends so much on Pullapilly’s planning and knowledge, transferring the program to a different director when Pullapilly decides not to take another group might be difficult.

Whether or not the Semester Around the World continues, it is a unique experience that forces its participants to truly look at the world, seeing not just the good but the bad as well. In one semester, these students see and experience countless things that many people will never have the chance to see. SAW teaches its students about the importance of stepping out of their comfort zones, opening them up to the chance for true learning and understanding of the world.

Contact Maria Smith at msmith4@nd.edu and Sarah Bates at bates.18@nd.edu