By LETTIE STRATTON
Ten SLU students and two professors spent three weeks of this past summer in India. Funded by the Mellon grant, they conducted a class called Engaging India’s Globalization while abroad.
“The idea was to study sustainable agriculture in India and examine how it ties into globalization,” Emma Rentz ’12 said.
Upon returning to the U.S., each student had to complete a final project, usually in the form of a paper, but Zach D’Arbeloff ’12 and Chase Fisher ’12 chose to make a 40-minute film of footage that they shot in India. Their film was recently screened in the Winston room and was followed by a student panel and Q & A session.
The film discussed the Kerala model, (the state’s high levels of life expectancy, literacy rate, and voter participation, etc, despite low per capita income), the wealth gap in India, and the sustainable agriculture demonstrated at Navdanya (a world-renowned NGO founded by environmental activist and author, Vandana Shiva). The film highlighted the Indian perception of the word “organic,” which is not the buzzword that it is here. Instead, it is simply the normal way of doing things.
The success of Kerala challenges the relevancy of indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The students argue that the Human Development Index (HDI) is actually a much better indicator of development than the GDP, because it considers factors such as life expectancy and literacy rates, while the GDP measures economic success alone. Low GDP does not always indicate a low standard of living, and Kerala, with the highest HDI in India and comparable with that of many first world nations, is a perfect example of that as a result of their incredible social mobilization.
“The people were amazing and had an appreciation for their own culture, which is something you don’t usually hear a lot about in third world countries,” said Rentz.
One audience member at the film screening gave the students his praise for using the Mellon Grant money and jet fuel well, but there is some debate in academia over the value of short-term study abroad programs. Some argue that if a student is not immersed in a culture for a long period of time, the trip turns into tourism and is simply self-indulgent.
“If I could go to India for a year, or two years, or four, it’d be infinitely better than going for three weeks, but you can learn so much in going for a short time,” said Rentz. “It’s easy to read about something and understand it, but it’s different when you go and see it for yourself.”
Steve Cucolo ’13 had similar sentiments. “The trip was short, a lot of the things we learned about agriculture don’t transfer to America, but the main theme of keeping old ways of doing things alive and going back to the roots—that’s something anyone can take and apply it to their own life. Values transfer and translate.”
Rentz and Cucolo both highlighted the idea that India and the United States are not completely different. “We can’t ignore the fact that everything is connected. Agriculture is agriculture; people are people,” said Cucolo.
However, one of the major differences between the two countries seems to be that Kerala focuses on the growth of community, not on the idea of individual success that is so highly valued in America. Lizzie Edwards ’12 brought up the point that in India, “remnants of the caste system make upward mobility nearly impossible.” When the community fails, the individual fails. When it succeeds, you succeed.
When asked about stereotypes that students found to be either reinforced or disproved with experience, Rentz and Cucolo confirmed that indeed, “there are cows everywhere.” Rentz continued on to mention that the topic of marriage came up in every conversation, and although she initially thought arranged marriage was a thing of the past, it is actually still very present in Indian culture, even among high-class and intellectual people.
“It’s easy to get stuck in an American mindset. You almost forget that there is a different point of view. I think being in India really made me realize that,” said Rentz.
“The trip was hard to define, even when we were there,” said Paige Veidenheimer ’12, before discussing several prominent themes of the trip that emerged for her over the course of the three-week journey. For Veidenheimer, the trip was about “the pleasure of eating wholesome food and preserving food cultures, the importance of the individual creative endeavor and adding to your own community, responding to macro-level problems at the micro-level, women’s empowerment, and rebuilding the economy so that people and not profit are at the center.”
Veidenheimer concluded by quoting Dr. Usha Ramanathan, an ex-lawyer activist. She said, “equality must come from change in the systems of power that exist or else patterns of injustice will continue.”
As a whole, the group of students expressed their thanks and gratitude to the Mellon Grant for making the trip possible. After viewing the film and listening to the panel of students answer questions, it is clear that their experience was extremely valuable and anything but self-indulgent tourism. It seems that we could learn a lot from India by simply listening to this exchange of knowledge that took place somewhere that is maybe not a world away after all.