For 50 years, UW students have been going to India

Joe Elder got involved with the University of Wisconsin’s study abroad program in India in 1961, the first year UW students could go there to earn credit. That fall, UW sent five students there. But by early 1962, no one at the university had heard from them, so Elder, a first-year faculty member, took off for Delhi to find them.

“I flew, spring vacation, to India to try to find these five missing people,” says Elder, a professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Sociology. “I tracked them down. The program had completely fallen apart, but they sort of worked out stuff … And they all were doing some fieldwork.”

Rather than scrap the India program after this setback, Elder and his colleagues, Henry Hart and Richard Robinson, restructured it.

Pan American World Airways welcomed student travelers in the early years as they departed for India, as shown in this photo of
the 1962–63 group. From the files of Joseph Elder.

In the fall of 1962, UW sent students to Varanasi, India, for the first time; 50 years later, UW students are still going to Varanasi. (For details, check out the program website.)

The India program has endured and evolved over five decades, but its central tenets have remained constant: It serves as a training ground for future scholars, its independent research component drives unique projects and requires student initiative, and participants often consider it a formative personal and/or professional experience.

The India program is among UW–Madison’s oldest and most unique study abroad experiences. It has taken place in different, often multiple Indian cities, including Delhi, Madurai, Hyderabad, and Varanasi.

The city of Varanasi has endured for approximately three millennia, says Elder. Like Jerusalem, it is one of the “oldest, continually lived-in [cities] in human history.”

College Year in India 1962–63 students were met at Delhi’s Palamairport by representatives of the students in the Delhi School of SocialWork (as well as by the school’s bus). Professor Joseph Elder (second from right) was in India to conduct research and came to the airport to receive the students as well.

Varanasi—also known as Banaras and Kashi—has 1.3 million residents and, as a Hindu religious center, draws many visitors.

“It’s where Shiva lives. It’s where the sacred river will cleanse your sins.… Buddha, when he was enlightened, went to teach in Banaras,” says Elder, who has remained involved throughout the program’s history. “It’s a scary, amazing place. We want to stay there as long as we possibly can. One of the reasons I think we’ve been able to outlive the other programs is that we are in the best city.”

Less structure, more initiative

Another reason has been the type of student attracted to the program.

University staff could pick out Elder’s students when they came into the office, he says with a laugh. Over the years, his students interested in going to India have shown up in bare feet or sandals and seemed a bit less put together than their peers.

“They didn’t want a rigid program. They wanted a chance to explore stuff they were interested in,” he says. “We maintained, ‘Look, we’ll give you a framework. Language is going to be the core, but the rest is up to you. And the exciting part is your fieldwork project.’”

The India program doesn’t attract throngs of students, as programs in Europe do, says Matt Geisler, assistant director of International Academic Programs. Since the program’s inception, over 450 students have studied in Varanasi, including 13 students currently studying there.

“It’s not a high-enrollment program, nor is it set up, currently, for that,” Geisler says. “It has a fairly specific niche.”

The program appeals to students interested in less structure, taking more personal initiative, and learning about the languages and cultures of India.

Alumni of the program often find their way back to India.

Mary Rader, who studied in Madurai in 1988-89, went back as support staff for the program in 1994-96. Rader now works on the UW–Madison campus as the South Asia bibliographer, the head of the Memorial Library Collection and Liaison Services, and the interim director for collection development in the general library system. She returned to India while working on her graduate studies and since completing them in 1998.

Rader says she felt “fascinated by and very comfortable with a way of being in Tamil Nadu,” the state where Madurai is located. She adds that speaking the Tamil language, living in South India, and maintaining friends and professional relationships “drew me back.”

Kristina Nielsen, who spent the 2011-12 academic year in Varanasi, plans to apply to a graduate program at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi after she graduates from UW–Madison in 2013.

Nielsen hopes to follow the path taken by many Varanasi alumni (and fulfill one of the program’s primary goals), by joining the ranks of scholars in the field.

Developing South Asian scholars

Over the decades, the India study abroad program has relied on federal funding. Grant proposals have presented the program as a valuable training ground for scholars in the field, Elder says.

“If you’re going to have people who really understand language and area studies, you can’t wait until they’re graduate students for them to start learning another language,” says Elder. “We now have quite a roster of people for whom this worked out, who are full faculty members. A lot of them went into teaching; a whole bunch of them got their PhD’s in some aspect.”

Elder boasts that this program has produced renowned scholars now in South Asian programs at top universities around the country and world, including Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and University of Goteborg in Sweden.

For example, he points to Diana Eck, professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University, where she completed her PhD. Eck is the founder and director of The Pluralism Project and “a huge advocate for interreligious dialogue,” says Elder.

Eck did her undergraduate work at Smith College, but studied abroad through the UW program, which has welcomed students from other universities.

“Her first book was on [Varanasi], which is where she was a student,” says Elder, and she has gone on to write or edit eight others. During her visits to Madison for a conference or lecture, he says, “she keeps saying, ‘and I owe it all to the fact that I was an undergraduate in the Wisconsin program.’”

Nielsen credits the program for teaching her organizational and writing skills, and how to interact with informants when conducting field research. Her experiences studying the language and cultural contexts of Hindu and Urdu also helped her pinpoint what she wants study.

“I was looking at some different focuses within linguistics, but now I’m really looking at linguistic conflict,” she says.

In conducting research in Varanasi, Nielsen often went into neighborhoods far from the usual tourist routes. When she dismounted from the rickshaw, people stared or asked if she was lost, Nielsen recalls with a laugh. But she enjoyed venturing out into the community to meet sources.

“I got to do things I don’t think tourists or most people would normally get to do because of my research,” says Nielsen, who conducted 25 hours of interviews with 13 people. “It really forced me to get involved in the society and meet people.”

The research project has been a core component of the India program. As of 2010, students had completed more than 550 papers ranging in topic from music and religion to environmental studies.

“All the projects that anyone has ever done for the program are on a bookcase on the wall [in Varanasi],” says Nielsen, who added her own 100-page project to the collection. “You can look through and see how the program has changed and see how the projects have changed.”

In a recent change to the program, students may now opt for a semester instead of a full year abroad. Their required project will be more like a term paper, says Elder.

For her project, Jordan Woodward, who is currently studying for a semester in Varanasi, is exploring a Sufi Dargah Shrine where Hindu and Muslim women seek treatments.

“I wanted to see how spirituality and psychology are being dealt with in a way that is one, as opposed to Western psychology where they’re really separated,” says Woodward.

Impact beyond academics

In addition to developing scholars, the program helps to develop people who understand aspects of life and culture in India.

“We said we want to produce quality scholars,” says Elder. “In addition, we want people who just know about India, to become insurance salesmen, or teachers, or social workers.”

Many participants found that living in, while learning about, India contributed significantly to their own professional and personal growth.

Elder recalls an old survey that asked program alumni if their experiences in India were transformative. While many experiences are transformative for 19-year-olds, Elder says all but one who responded said it had affected their lives.

This includes alumni who followed paths outside of academia.

Some of the earliest participants in the program are now retiring after careers with the State Department and the Library of Congress, Elder notes.

Rader found the experience both professionally and personally transformative.

“I went to India not knowing anything about it,” she says. The experience “shifted what my whole career and life path has been since then.”

She credits a shared interest in South India as a driving force that brought her and her husband, Don Davis, together. Davis is an associate professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia at UW–Madison.

Another Varanasi alumna, Joan A. Raducha, played a leadership role in study abroad administration on the UW–Madison campus for nearly 20 years.

“I studied abroad as a student and then served as the on-site coordinator for the College Year in India program in Varanasi for two years. These years played a major role in shaping my intellectual direction and, ultimately, my career,” Raducha wrote in ‘I’ll Remember This Trip’ – Fifty years of study abroad at UW–Madison (2008).

Raducha’s career included serving as director of International Academic Programs—the first woman and non-faculty to hold this position—and as associate dean of the Division of International Studies (formerly the Office of International Studies and Programs).

The India program has also affected the personal lives of participants.

In Varanasi, Woodward rises around 6:30 a.m. – early compared to her usual habits – for yoga and meditation.

Nielsen learned to cook from her host mother in Varanasi and keeps her spices on a rack she bought in India.

“I cook in the Indian style pretty much every day,” she says. “Half the time I cook, at least, I make something that reminds me of India.”

She also maintains close friendships and contact with her host family, ties she intends to renew if her plans to return to India for graduate school succeed.

Nielsen, who now works for UW–Madison’s International Academic Programs, says she recognizes how the program’s unique opportunities have already pointed her life towards India.

“That year was kind of a test to see if I would like to do this kind of thing for the rest of my life. I think it kind of changed my path,” she says. She adds that the experience has affected her personal life in addition to her professional path. “I have ties there I feel like I’ll keep forever.”

— by Nora G. Hertel