Destination India: Students study abroad for 20 days with Professor Lisa Eck

English Professor Lisa Eck leads a group of students on a trip to India during every other January semester. Photo from framingham.edu

Lisa Eck was walking through a temple in Delhi, India with 18 FSU students and children from a local orphanage when something went wrong.

The voice in the temple which explained the exhibits started narrating in English.

Rajeev Lochan, a close friend of Eck’s and the man who runs the study abroad program, suddenly stopped and looked very concerned.

“What is happening?” he asked.

The trip to the temple was supposed to entertain the children. “Rajeev went back and got the temple staff to change it to Hindi so the children could understand,” Eck said.

Unlike a typical tourist experience, Eck’s study abroad program is more culturally immersive. This is what sets her program apart from other study abroad programs, she said. The trip focuses on the people of India. Students contribute to local society and in the process get an experience they would not get as regular tourists.

“[Lochan] is there to make sure we are really connecting and immersing ourselves and realizing it’s not about us,” Eck said.

Eck takes a group of 18 FSU students with her to spend 20 days in India every other January. “The FSU J-term in India is like no other study abroad program that exists out there,” Eck said. “It is really unique,” she added.

Junior Kelsey Morgan said she is excited to go on the trip this January. “I’ve always been big on studying abroad, but didn’t like the idea of being gone for a whole semester.”

Morgan said Eck’s trip will allow her to go abroad with students she knows and she likes that it is only for 20 days.

“I also like the idea that the program is flexible and changes based on who’s going,” Morgan added.

Eck works with Lochan and Anu Singh who developed a gap year program to invite teenagers from all over the world to come to India and have an intensive experience.  The program was developed with great values around service and living with them in their home. “It was very personal,” Eck added.

“The genius of the program is that we work with Rajeev and Anu and they host the program in their home, and they’ve recently built a retreat center in Kalimpo.”

The center is 5,000 feet in the mountains and they have built a gorgeous home filled with art, books, dogs and birds. But the home is surrounded by “eco cottages” made out of sustainable material, such as bamboo and other things that grow on the mountain, Eck said.

The trip begins on the mountain.  For the first 10 days the students stay with Lochan and Singh in the cottages. When the students arrive there will be a welcoming ceremony hosted by the villagers, Eck said.

“You arrive and the villagers are singing and chanting and you get pink rice put on your forehead, and a beautiful silk stall and marigold pedals thrown at you. It’s just this incredible beginning,” Eck said.

Over the next nine days, students will participate in a Buddhist prayer session and then choose from several different community service options.

The first is to work at a monastery where young boys are learning to be Buddhist lamas. Students will teach basic English lessons and play games and they will teach them how to make some ritual arts.

The second is to meet with the Tibetan exile community to learn some history from older individuals who remember fleeing China. They’ll speak Tibetan but there will be an interpreter who will help students record the stories in English. Eck said the goal is to “contribute to the history and have a record that the world can read of the repression and the persistence of the Tibetan culture.”

The third option is to partner with the Lepcha Welfare Association.

“The Lepcha are the indigenous people who have been there for over 5,000 years,” Eck said.

This service project will take a literary approach. The students will ask to hear their folk tales, traditions and indigenous wisdom to take away with them and to honor the culture, Eck said.

The fourth and final option will be to work with a group called “Save the Hills” to help work on mudslide prevention. The group will study natural and human causes of mudslides and what can be done to prevent them. This will be an environmental approach, Eck said.

The group will visit each site and then students can decide which service project they want to work on.

The group will also do homestays. They will stay with Lepcha families in their brightly-painted homes right around the farm.

Eck said, “The concept of the homestays is the kids get to practice their English and its economically good for the parents because the families are paid to host us to cover the cost of food and hospitality.”

During the next part of the trip, Eck said the group does a little sight-seeing.  First they will visit Darjeeling where the group will wake up at 3 a.m. to hike up mount Kangchenjunga, which is the highest point in India, to watch the sun rise.

“The sun comes up over the Himalayas. Supposedly the pink of the sunrise hits the snowcapped peaks of Everest and it just floats there in the sky,” said Eck. “Everything else is black and then the world starts to reveal itself. It’s like the birth of the world every morning.”

The group will stay in Lochan’s old boarding school, which he compares to Hogwarts with its gothic structure.

The trip will also include white water rafting down the Ganges River, biking down the mountain, which Eck added is optional, and a 22-hour-long train ride in sleeper cars. There will be journaling and storytelling and looking at more in-depth questions of life, Eck said.

The train ride will bring them to a place called Rishikesh. “There are no cars or alcohol,” Eck said.

The days in Rishikesh will include waking up to the gong, yoga sessions and a ceremony every night.

“The hiking and yoga,” Morgan said, “will probably be the most amazing experience on this trip.”

Rishikesh is a city where many people travel to on spiritual journeys and is where The Beatles wrote the white album. “Everywhere you look there’s a yoga studio,” Eck said.

The trip will end in Agra where they will visit the Taj Mahal, “the world’s most perfect building,” Eck said. Here, she will use the opportunity to talk about the Muslim minority in India.

“With ISIS stealing the conversation and high jacking what it means to be Muslim, it helps you take that away from the fundamentalists and say, what is the daily life a Muslim individual in India?”      

The group will fly out of Delhi, the capital of India, where Eck said she has more surprises and adventures planned.

Morgan said what she is looking for most is “to interact with a culture I’m not familiar with.

“It’s easy to go to Europe and go places that are familiar to American culture, but I’m really excited to be out of my comfort zone,” she said.

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