Turning away from glamorous European destinations to explore a home culture in India.
Everyone looks forward to a semester abroad, especially when your major almost requires you to spend time in a region that you’ll be studying throughout your undergraduate career. Like many students on campus, I walked into Syracuse’s Study Abroad office bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, skimming the brochures for Strasbourg and London, where I hoped to spend a semester. Little did I know that I would end up traveling much farther.
Despite having my eye on European destinations, I began cultivating a deeper interest in South Asian studies and enjoying every class I took about Indian politics, Indian history and Hindi. However, my affinity towards South Asia wasn’t just rooted in textbooks and quizzes: I credit a large part of my interest in India to my Indo-Caribbean heritage and constantly having to reaffirm my “Indian-ness” to others who thought that being fourth-generation Indian meant I “no longer counted.” Without consulting anyone, I went ahead and applied for a semester learning about sustainable development and social change in Jaipur, India.
Before I knew it, I was already on the plane to New Delhi, the capital of India. Throughout my time in India, exploring 10 different cities, I had the opportunity to learn about each one and gain a better understanding of the social dynamics and culture prevalent there, especially since in India, almost every state has a varying language and way of life.
My time in India was truly my most fulfilling semester in college; it allowed me to explore a spectrum of topics from the social dynamics of mountainous nomads in Uttarakhand, Northern India to the effects of disappearing waterways in Puducherry, Southern India (though swimming there got us into a bit of trouble with the Coast Guards!). Besides academics, I got to enjoy bargaining with local vendors in Jaipur, experience the serenity of hill stations in Mussoorie and the busy metropolitan life of Delhi during our allotted weekend travels. Throughout my semester abroad, what really astonished me was the way India made my academics “fun.” Every academic paper analyzing history or social dynamics seemed to get done so easily because India never left room for a dull moment. Besides my usual required classes, I also spent a month interning with Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO based in Gujarat that works for the advocacy of migrant workers in India, while conducting my own research on human rights violations of migrant workers. Through this internship and research project, I was able to combine two subjects I am very passionate about: law and culture. The workers I met encounter a variety of workplace issues, from lack of proper legal identification to compensation for workplace injuries, which I began addressing in weekly workshops on legal literacy and rights. Being a pre-law student, I was fascinated by the differences and similarities between the American judicial system versus the Indian and the drastic need for improvement in both. I had never imagined that while studying abroad in India, I would be able to dive into legal related research that would allow me to advocate for others.
Now, when people ask me where I’ve studied abroad, I can see the look of confusion and dismissal on their face when I proudly exclaim “India!” I almost always feel the need to start explaining why I chose India as opposed to a glamorous European destination. But the reality is, India isn’t a country that needs justification nor can it be explained in a simple conversation, India is essentially an experience that is best defined by your own visit.
My time in India allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for a country that mainstream media has dwindled down to Slumdog Millionaire and Bollywood.
Ishana Sahabir is a junior studying political science and international relations at Syracuse University.