From Hope Craig
“Ok, ok. But, what will you do?” I was often asked by friends and family when detailing plans to study abroad in Kotagiri, India this Spring. When researching images of the small town before departure, I often found those of green hilly landscapes, wildlife, and tea plantations, and began to wonder the same thing myself. What will classes be like in this environment? How will I communicate without knowing a word of Tamil? What am I getting myself into?? From what I had learned of the Nilgiris Field Learning Center and my knowledge of those involved, I was reassured of my interest in the program and its unique opportunities for engaged learning. My interest to pursue research in community health and nutrition drove my initial curiosity in joining NFLC. The multidisciplinary nature of the Center, cross-cultural collaboration of the Keystone Foundation, and hands-on research experience offered lie hand-in-hand with what I hope to take part in as an undergraduate student. Kotagiri, India, I would soon find, is an unparalleled place to explore my interests in cross-cultural learning and population health.
Though we arrived only a week ago, I feel so welcomed to Keystone, as though we have been members of the community for years. The enthusiasm, kindness and unwavering support with which we have been met is unparalleled and contagious, creating an incredible learning environment for academic and personal development. I am particularly excited to be a part of the first group of students to participate in the NFLC. We’ve collectively been dubbed the Pioneer Guinea Pigs by Keystone staff, as we, part guinea pig, part pioneer, explore the ample opportunities and directions for the NFLC.
Beginning each class day with Tamil-English language instruction, Cornell and Palangudi students partner to cross-teach English and Tamil. I entered the first day of classes not knowing a word of Tamil. Unaccustomed to feeling so unprepared and disadvantaged in the classroom, I found myself feeling nervous and uncomfortable. It was the challenge of facing the frustrations of miscommunication and embracing the difficulties of being at the lower hand that allowed the exercise to be most rewarding. I readily clung to my partner, Abhilash, who eagerly shared his knowledge of Tamil with me and allowed me to recognize just how much can be communicated between cultures, without the use of language.
After we all regrouped to debrief, we reviewed the English/Tamil words for family relationships that we were assigned. This exercise continued to surprise me as we soon enough found ourselves in deep conversation regarding cultural considerations of marriage, relationships, and gender roles in our respective communities. Archana patiently and carefully translated between groups. Our cultural differences quickly became apparent but the open environment in the room made me to feel comfortable sharing my perspective and eager to listen to those of my classmates. It is moments like these that I am most grateful for thus far. As I reflect on this conversation with Palangudi students, fellow Cornell students, and Keystone staff, I am amazed at how unique this opportunity to engage with different cultural perspectives is, and how valuable the opportunity is to build relationships with individuals and communities who share perspectives dissimilar to my own. I look forward to continuing to build relationships with my classmates and am eager to continue our intergroup dialogue as we prepare for our field research projects later on in the semester. I cannot wait to see what these next four months hold!