To Parents and Families
This is Dr. Pennington, one of the two instructors for this course. (Students have been forbidden to call me Dr. anything once we leave the country, but for formality’s sake I’ll introduce myself that way here.) For 16 years, until this past August 1, I was a faculty member at Maryville College, most recently as the Chair of its Division of Humanities. I now direct Elon’s Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society. I have been very fortunate to be affiliated with these two fine institutions. I am also very lucky to have my wife, Dr. Amy Allocco, Elon’s Distinguished Emerging Scholar in Religious Studies, as my co-instructor for this study abroad course. Together, we are privileged to be taking your son, daughter, or loved one with us to India beginning tomorrow. In this short post I want to address two things: potential concerns you might have and the reasons I think you can feel grateful, as I do, that those of us on this course have the opportunities we will have for the month of January.
There are many legitimate reasons family members might feel concerned. International travel by its very nature is daunting. These students will be confronting the unknown, both in another culture and in themselves, as they face new circumstances that will challenge them in unique ways. They will see poverty and inequality up close and in the lives of real people they will come to know. Some of them will get sick; most will feel homesickness, and all will at times be fatigued, weary of the company of their colleagues and us, and eager for something, anything familiar. My own first encounter with India in 1993 when I was a student was fraught with frustration, difficulty, and exhaustion. India was a different place then: poverty rates were considerably higher and literacy much lower; few homes had televisions, refrigerators, or any transport other than an bicycle or scooter, and travel was, on the whole, much more difficult. But what I found most taxing were the realities of culture shock that first-time travelers often encounter: language barriers, the inability to read social cues and gestures, ignorance of how to accomplish the simplest errands. Shortly after I arrived in the town where I was to study Hindi, I was very publicly thrown out of a pharmacy when I was looking in vain for cold medicine because I had somehow insulted the shopkeeper. And once, in the middle of a very long bus journey in an entirely unfamiliar place, a monkey snatched my only pair of glasses and leaped up into a tree where, the quickly forming crowd of amused bystanders told acutely near-sighted me, he bent, chewed and mangled them. Despite many isolated annoyances like these, as a result of the things I learned and the relationships that I formed that summer, my life became permanently enriched and my perception of the world utterly transformed by my relationship with India.
Students on this trip will have a gentler introduction to India than I did, but our course is designed to expose them to real Indian lives and spaces, and this will not always be easy. This is not tourism, but intensive and in-depth cross-cultural education. We are confident these students will have their own moments of real discovery—of themselves, of the world outside their experience, and of their own culture and society—that they might never have had without an opportunity like this one. It is because Elon University and Maryville College believe so strongly in the importance of international study and have many decades of experience working with students abroad that they design courses like this one.
I have lost count, but this will be something like the 20th time I have traveled to India for research or teaching, and this year Amy marks her own 20th anniversary of her first semester of study in India as a college student. Our professional lives involve us in doing many things that we love—writing, working with bright students, collaborating with informed and committed colleagues—but we have told students that this course is perhaps the professional opportunity we value and enjoy most because we can often see ourselves in students as they embark on so many new experiences. We are every bit as excited to set off through South India as they are, and when we arrive back in the States, we will feel the same sense of loss of the camaraderie and companionship that we will all come to rely on. We feel very, very fortunate that our works affords us the chance to do what we love so much and to have the chance to study and travel with these students.
A few final assurances: you have helped one of these young people get to this point, and I can assure you that the sacrifices, cost, and uncertainty will have been very well worth it. Secondly, the safety and well-being of these students will be our first priority over the next three-and-a-half weeks. And finally, we offer our best wishes for the New Year and promise that your each of these students will long remember the first month of 2015.