“I’ve heard from many people that India changes you,” says Dianne MacDonald, manager of international projects with Mount Royal University’s Office of International Education.
After accompanying 25 students on Mount Royal’s first field school to India, MacDonald believes it’s true.
“It was phenomenal to see these young people travel independently to India and to watch the transformation and the learning — it was more than anything I could ever describe,” MacDonald says.
Created by Social Work Associate Professor Yasmin Dean and Terry Field, associate professor and Journalism chair, the field school was open to students in the Faculty of Communication Studies, and those in the Social Work and Child and Youth Care Counsellor diploma programs in the Faculty of Health and Community Studies.
Students took courses in both intercultural communication and international community development, before travelling to India for a stay at the Sri Ram Ashram — located just outside the Hindu holy city of Haridwar. While there, the students participated in a seven-day cultural program at Lovely Professional University, located in Jalandhar.
“The two courses fit like two gloves on the same person,” Field says. “The intercultural communication course looked at the context of communication in sophisticated societies like India in comparison or contrast to our own; the community development course was on-the-ground at the ashram, trying to get an understanding of how that community functions — its strengths, its weaknesses and its potential.”
As part of the field school, students completed projects on the lives of the children and staff at the ashram and also documented their own reactions to Indian culture. They shared their work at a showcase on campus on June 27.
Dean says each presentation shared what the students gained from their experience and demonstrated the personal connections forged through the field school.
“I don’t think I anticipated the level of connection we would all feel to one another and to the communities we visited,” Dean says. “That was probably the most magical part for everyone — how connected they felt within the local community and, more broadly, within the global community.”
For Pauline Zulueta, a third-year student in the Bachelor of Communication — Journalism program, one reason for attending the field school is because it is a requirement for the International Communications certificate she is trying to complete. She also thought it would be a great way to visit a country that intrigues her.
“I’ve always been interested in the Indian culture and the colours and the people,” Zulueta says.
But, she says, the field school turned into something much more. “I came out of it so much more enlightened and it was such a personal experience for me.”
Zulueta, who wants to work in international journalism or photojournalism after graduation, was part of a team working on a documentary about resiliency in children.
Her teammates were fellow Journalism student, Jodi Egan, and Carolyn Butler, a student from the Faculty of Health and Community Studies who Zulueta says brought a fresh perspective to the team’s project.
“Jodi and I are journalism students, so we were thinking about logistics and how to go into this project from a journalism perspective,” Zulueta says. “Carolyn is in the Child and Youth Care Counsellor diploma program, and she was thinking more about feelings and how the kids would see us.
“Carolyn gave a totally fresh perspective on what we wanted to do, and her experience and input helped us so much because we learned not just about our project but about kids and resiliency in general just from her.”
The team also learned about the need for flexibility, both in dealing with the logistics of filming and in responding to the reality of life in the ashram.
“We knew we wanted to do a video; we had prepared for all the camera equipment and memory cards,” Zulueta says.
“But when we got there, we found — you know what? The kids are already so resilient. They had so much hardship in their past lives before they came to the ashram. We saw them flourishing and they all have happy lives and they gave us so much.
“We had little material things, but they gave us so much love, they were so welcoming and they taught us so much about what it is like to be a good family.”
A collaborative work of art
For Social Work Diploma graduate Danielle Fermin, her experience in India was truly a transformative one that saw the usually quiet and reserved student take on a leadership role heading the development and production of a collaborative mural project.
“The whole part of having my ideas come into play and see how much of an impact I actually have was pretty cool,” says Fermin, who has interests in international community development and is pursuing her social work degree at the University of Calgary.
“You shouldn’t ever doubt your ideas because you never know what could happen, especially with the help of faculty, peers or even strangers that you just meet.”
Also lending direction on the mural team were fellow Social Work student, Keisha Kipling, and Communications student, Giselle Dino. “We didn’t have any divisions at all between communications and social work students,” says Fermin. “We really worked well together and learned a lot from each other.”
The mural was truly a collaborative effort with Mount Royal students and participants from the Sri Ram Ashram — from the youngest child to the mothers of the ashram — assisting in different ways.
“It was such a fun, loving and warm environment, you truly felt like you were part of their family,” says Fermin.“Those kids knew who they were; the whole ashram is their home; all the children there are their brothers and sisters and they’re not orphans anymore; they’ve already found a home. They have a family.”
“Like the quote on the mural: ‘Home is where our hearts will forever stay,’ Mount Royal students from 2012 have left a piece of their hearts at Sri Ram Ashram, and in return, many of the children, mommies and staff at the ashram have left a piece of their hearts embedded in our memories forever.”
Fermin’s vision is to have future groups of Mount Royal students who participate in the India field school continue to add to the mural design at the ashram.
“The next group will decide on an addition to the mural that needs to happen,” Dean explains. “It’s certainly something that will keep the relationships developed between the children and the Mount Royal students at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
Producing global citizens
The next field school to India will occur in 2014 with plans to continue to run the project every two years. Dean hopes that other faculty and staff members will continue to get involved with the project in the future.
“The field school is much more than just the couple of people that lead the field school or the host agencies that we go to,” says Dean.
“It truly is a Mount Royal initiative and I think it really speaks quite broadly to the larger learning outcomes that we have for our students as global citizens.”
— Nancy Cope and Jondrea De Ruyter, Aug. 30, 2012