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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2004 > Over There

Over There

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By Sue Dickman '89

In the middle of May 2000, 10 years after my own first trip to India, I found myself sitting under a tree on the grounds of an old British hunting lodge near the hill station of Mussoorie, in northern India, surrounded by a motley group of American college students. They were waiting—not always patiently—for their turns to tell us all what they had learned. As the co-director of a study-abroad program based in Jaipur, I had first met these students at the Delhi airport more than three months earlier, when they had been awkward, eager and afraid. Now that the program was nearly over, their confidence was astonishing. In addition to classes and homestays, they had done independent study: Some had volunteered at social-service organizations in Delhi or Jaipur, some had studied Indian music or traditional crafts, several had done creative writing projects, one had studied the philosophy of the religious teacher J. Krishnamurthi.

The final presentation was by a young woman who had lived in the holy city of Benares, right beside the Ganges River, where scores of people came each day to bathe and to pray and, often, to die. The project she handed in was both thoughtful and lovely: an essay and sketches, a series of photos, showing the role of circumambulation in Hindu spirituality and in people’s individual spiritual lives. The impact on her went well beyond her project, though. When she spoke about what she had seen in Benares, her voice broke. She had learned not just about Hindu worship but something about herself she had not known earlier, though she couldn’t articulate it exactly. “I was surrounded by death,” she finally told us, “and that changes the way you look at things.”

I had no doubt that that student—as well as some of the others—would be a different person as a result of her experience. Her semester in India had taught her many concrete things, things she could be tested on, things she could write about. But the more significant lessons she and the others had learned could not be contained within the confines of a spiral notebook. She could not be the same afterward, nor would she want to be.

Students choose to go abroad for many reasons. Amherst students sometimes go to get away from the small and occasionally claustrophobic campus community. In other cases, they go toward something, attracted by another place. But whatever their intentions and whatever the destination, all of them, like the student in Benares, are transformed to one degree or another.

Dr. Mark Miller ’83 is a case in point. Miller modestly calls what he does “applied anthropology,” but his work does not have modest goals. As director of the Division of International Epidemiology and Population Studies at the Fogarty International Center, part of the National Institutes of Health, Miller builds teams of investigators from very different disciplines to solve international health problems, especially in the developing world. Miller’s career—through Yale Medical School, the Centers for Disease Control, the United Nations and now the NIH—has always been interdisciplinary. He credits this to the semester he spent in Kenya during his junior year at Amherst, an experience he calls “life-transforming…not only opening my eyes to other worlds but providing the foundation of much of the interdisciplinary work in which I am currently engaged.”

Miller attended the St. Law­rence University program in Kenya because he wanted to be immersed in an entirely different culture where language would not be a problem. “Amherst is a wonderful place to stay for four years,” he said recently, “but it’s also insular, and I wanted a small slice of the real world, as both a contrast and supplement to the educational experience there.”

His program involved several months of classes in Nairobi—including African literature, Swahili and a comparative view of sociopolitical systems in East Africa—along with two weeks of field experience (during which he lived with the Samburu people) and a one-week rural homestay near Lake Victoria. For the program’s required month-long internship, Miller chose to work with Richard Leakey at the Kenya National Museum. Miller describes St. Lawrence’s program as “very rich,” in its combination of academic classes and field experience (the field experience, he says, was still academic, though “less didactic”). After the program ended, Miller stayed on to pursue a second internship in wildlife-behavior studies with the United Nations Environment Program. Not only did his five months in Kenya provide him with material for the senior thesis he wrote for Deborah Gewertz, the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology, but it also whetted his appetite for travel. He has sought out opportunities to work overseas in the years since.

Continued >>

Illustration: Curtis Parker/CORBIS


Online Extra

Alexandra Bloom '04 spent her semester abroad in China. For the class United States Foreign Policy: Democracy and Human Rights, she wrote this paper (link will open a PDF): "America’s Influence on Uighur Human Rights"


Amherst College Study-Abroad Program

Amherst College is a longtime member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and works closely with the Section on U.S. Students Abroad. Their latest report is "Securing America's Future: Global Education in a Global Age." William Hoffa's paper, "Study Abroad: A Guide for Parents," is available from the Amherst Career Center. Amherst is also a member of a new organization called the Forum on Education Abroad. The American Council on Education has published a comprehensive study called "Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses: Final Report." And annual data on students coming to and leaving the United States is available from the Institute of International Education.

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