Global Education

Student contrasts experience with India exchange programs

By Erika Eldrenkamp
Published: February 2010

None of us knew what to expect when we decided to apply to School Year Abroad (SYA). Though SYA, an American high school exchange organization, had been around for 46 years, it began a program in India only last year’€my year.

We had never been on an exchange, let alone one for such a long period of time. So, when we left with 23 other American students and four American teachers, we flew out to Visakhapatnam, India, with no expectations.

On the day we arrived in Visakhapatnam, we met up with our host families and went “home. We may have been put into upper-class homes, but we still saw more than we might have known about otherwise, on a trip as a tourist.

Within the first week, I found out why it’s generally not polite to eat with the left hand, I was introduced to my family’s three servants’€two were 15-year-old girls’€and I learned that I would be fed until I collapsed. I participated in many beautiful religious ceremonies and also heard my host father’s views on Pakistan.

The experience was amazing and came with only a few hindrances. The seniors applying to college had to deal with the Internet going down every hour, and the noise at night took weeks to get used to.

Despite these and other reservations, we hated leaving, which was why I was so excited to go back to India with South this past December.

I didn’t expect the insight to the culture to be as in-depth during the three weeks we were there. This time, we stayed in an apartment and met up with the Indian exchange students during community service projects and sightseeing tours.

Initially, I was most interested in seeing everything that I had missed out on my first time in India. During SYA, I had spent the vacation hiking the Himalayas rather than touring and seeing monuments, but on the school trip, I would finally get the chance to see the Taj Mahal.

The exchange students changed any preconceptions I had about the trip. The first time we met them, they performed an Indian dance for us and had us join in. When we went to their high school, we saw that students halfway across the globe are the same. We would play charades and Taboo with them on the bus rides and also spend hours talking about our respective cultures.

This was my first time in India with Indians my own age’€my SYA host siblings had been in college’€and we crossed more cultural gaps with them than any of us had had a chance to before.

That isn’t to say that everything was perfect. Two of the South students, like the seniors on SYA, had to finish college applications with spotty Internet. Many of us experienced some type of stomach discomfort, an inevitable product of the change in environment.

In the end, though, everything was worth it. The two trips could not have been more different or more amazing. And while less of a change awaited me after three weeks than after four months, I still felt as I had a year before’€unwilling to go home.

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