Sometime early in the fall semester, I attended an evening program for the Kelley Living-Learning Center about study abroad. The speaker made us aware of a number of fantastic opportunities, including a trip to India exclusively for Kelley direct-admit freshmen. I had always thought it would be really cool to go to India, but I'd never really considered it to be a real possibility. After all, I don't know very many people who have gone to India for vacation or to study; most choose instead to go to places like Europe or Australia. Other people looked at me like I was crazy (and maybe I was), but I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn firsthand about Indian culture and business practice; not to mention it would be a great way to "test the waters" for study abroad before I attempted a semester or summer in a foreign land.
The process started by informing my parents of my intentions. When making major decisions, I always think this is a good idea. In this case, it probably prevented my mom from having some sort of anxiety attack (international travel tends to scare some parents). With my parents' blessing, I began work on the competitive application. I had to answer a bunch of questions about myself and write an essay about why I was interested in the program. I was so nervous about submitting the application that it took me about three weeks from the time I finished the essay to click the "submit" button. Then began the waiting...
About a month after I submitted the application (during winter break), decisions went out over email. I GOT IN!!! After a brief victory dance, I had to sit down and make a decision: To go to India or not to go to India. For me, it was a pretty easy decision. I really wanted to go to India, and I'd decided since registering for classes that I really wasn't that interested in music theory. After talking it over with my mom (again, consulting my parents before making major decisions), I decided to "follow the dream" and accepted my seat in the three-credit second eight-weeks class, dropping music theory to make room.
I excitedly waited the entire first half of the semester for the class to begin. I knew six people (five from my floor) who were in the class, and none of us could wait to go to India. Slowly, emails began to filter in, bringing us such exciting things as an itinerary and recommended health precautions, including vaccine recommendations. I wasn't too excited about that last item, but it wasn't so bad after all; I walked away with two shots (one of which I had to have anyhow) and two different sets of pills.
The first day of class, we had a brief overview of the class, the rules, and the itinerary, then got to work applying for visas. Our trip to India was finally becoming real! We all became even more excited for the trip that was less than two months ahead of us. We spent the following six weeks learning all about India, from cows to cricket and from history to henna. We learned about how business is conducted in India; all about marketing and supply chain management, plus how businesspeople in India dress and conduct themselves.
The Monday after the semester ended, we gathered in Bloomington once again for a pre-departure orientation. In the midst of our presentations and get-to-know-you activities, we learned that our flight was cancelled. Oh no! We stayed in the classroom after our meal was finished, waiting for news and listening to Bollywood music. Finally, we got our news: We could either leave early, arriving in India around the same time, or we could leave a few days later. We opted to leave early, which meant we had about three hours to get ready before boarding the bus. We all hurried back to our temporary campground at Ashton Residence Center, where we showered, packed, and made other final preparations before boarding our bus to Chicago at 10:30.
We arrived at O'Hare airport with plenty of time to spare. Luckily, it's still socially acceptable for college students to camp out on airport floors, so that's exactly what we did. Later, a crew from WGN came around to interview some of us about our thoughts on the foiling of a terrorist plot. Not exactly what I wanted to think about on a long flight to India, but it was certainly cool to be on TV!
After about 15 hours in transit, we finally boarded a flight from New York to Delhi. It was such an exciting moment! I couldn't wait! I passed the 14.5 hours anxiously watching the plane icon move along the map, sleeping, and enjoying my first two Indian meals.
My first glance of India was from the plane. It looked so...different. The city was very different from any American city I'd ever seen; It didn't seem to be planned at all. The soil was red (an interesting detail for a farm girl like me), and there seemed to be a giant cloud of dust. When we finally left the airport, there were palm trees and other tropical plants everywhere. It was beautiful.
The next day, we took off on a long bus ride to Agra to visit the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. Both sites were very beautiful, very large, and very powerful. One cannot fully understand the size of the Taj Mahal without visiting and witnessing it firsthand. The detail of the work on the Taj Mahal is also astounding. Looking at models of the Taj Mahal, I'd always thought the little squiggles around the arches were just carved out for decoration, but it turns out that's actually Arabic writing. I'd never even known that there were other pieces of decoration, like flowers! Actually, both the writing and the flowers are semiprecious stones laid in the marble through a process known only to a few local craftsmen. I can hardly imagine carving out all the spaces in which these stones were laid: What a job!
We spent some time visiting companies while we were in India. My personal favorite was Target. Although Target doesn't have retail stores in India, they do have offices in Bangalore. They have designed their Bangalore headquarters to be almost identical to their headquarters in Minneapolis, even though they do different work there. I was very interested in their presentation about merchandising. I have always been intrigued by store displays, so I was absolutely "in my element." I was also impressed by how Target has adapted to the local culture by holding cultural exhibitions and other uniquely Indian social events for employees.
We also visited two NGOs while in India: The Akshara Foundation, which works with local schools, and the National Association for the Blind. Both visits were absolutely astounding because of what the organizations have been able to accomplish. The Akshara Foundation has worked with what I would consider to be very limited resources to make an amazing difference in the education of Indian children. This opens the door to better jobs and a better life for these children, who without the foundation would probably never learn to read and would never attain any significant level of education. The NAB does amazing things for blind people in India. In addition to basic life skills, such as mobility and cooking, they teach blind people to do tasks that I would think difficult for any person, such as using computer software and making useful pieces from metal. Through these two visits, I gained a new respect for NGOs and the people who work for them.
My favorite visit while on the trip was to talk with the people who are in charge of the Indian census. India has well over a billion people, more than three times the population of the United States. They conduct their census in less time than we do, and an enumerator actually visits with the head of each and every Indian household. The enumerators all go out one night while all the homeless people are sleeping and count them, making sure that every person in India is counted. Some tribes living on islands are hostile toward the Indian government, so the enumerators take videocameras on boats and film as they approach the islands, then turn around before they can be hurt. They take the videos back and count the people who come out and wait to attack the approaching boat. Overall, it was logistics and creative problem solving taken to the extreme to solve a real-world problem.
While in India, our group was something of a spectacle. In many places (especially tourist destinations) we were approached by people asking for handshakes, pictures, and even autographs. Some of them had never seen "Englishmen" before (almost none knew we were American), and they had to get pictures of us while they had the chance. When we landed in Bangalore, a professional cricket team came from a plane in the gate next to ours, and people took more pictures of us than of the celebrities. It was a very unusual experience, especially considering that all of us are just ordinary people.
After 8 full days spent in India, it was time to head home. We all said goodbye to our new Indian friends; Mrids, Shri, and Anjali, then boarded our bus to the airport and began our long journey home. It was a great experience, and I learned more than I could possibly write in this already-long blog post. On the other hand, I was also ready to be home with my family and where I didn't have to be so careful to avoid local water. We boarded another very long flight and headed back home, where we were began sharing our stories of our unbelievably amazing trip to India.