A group of SUNY Oswego students came to understand India as a land of hope after traveling for two weeks during the college's winter break to learn from people living in Kolkata (Calcutta), West Bengal, India.

Through the "Practicum in International Development" course, eight students and Christy Huynh, associate director of career services, joined human development faculty member Dr. Mamta Saxena touring Indian cultural sites and villages, and speaking with people in the Kolkata region in connection with a program of St. Xavier's College.

The purpose of St. Xavier's Adopt a Village and Cultural Program is "for students to have a meaningful interaction” with the rural and minority community members of Kolkata, Saxena said, and to learn about the social, historical and architectural aspects of the country, and to contribute to community-defined projects. Any students were welcome to take part, not just human development majors.

St. Xavier's students taught the SUNY Oswego visitors about dance, drama, peace building and Jesuit values applied to the people of Kolkata. "It really helped my students immerse in Indian culture and understand its richness," said Saxena.

SUNY Oswego has had a relationship with Kolkata's St. Xavier’s College since 2013, encouraging student, faculty and staff exchanges for semester abroad programs, research, cross-cultural art opportunities and professional development.

The trip featured a visit to Seva Kendra, an agency in Kolkata for excellence in education, health care, environment and climate, food security, social justice and women empowerment initiatives. The SUNY Oswego visitors spoke with members of a youth self-help group that works for these causes to understand their struggles and goals.

'Wonderful, meaningful'

The group visited two villages, Nurshirdarchowk -- "adopted" by St. Xavier’s College -- and Kalmi Khali, an hour's drive from Kolkata. Students of St. Xavier’s work with the residents of these two villages and empower them to become financially independent and facilitate connections with city resources. The Oswego team played and sang songs with children, and learned about life in the villages.

"These are ongoing projects that St. Xavier’s has committed to," said Dr. Joshua McKeown, SUNY Oswego’s associate provost for international education and programs. "Their own students are working on them, too. We wanted our students to be part of something wonderful and meaningful."

One of the purposes of the program in Nurshirdarchowk is to bring young children to a church to make them feel wanted, have loving connections and to know that this is a good world to live in, said Saxena, who was born in India and has close family there.

The Kalmi Khali project works for women's empowerment, teaching women how to save money and sell products, leading them to self-sufficiency. The women raise fish for commercial use, cultivate and harvest rice, and save money in local banks, Saxena said.

The village women spoke about how the empowerment group affected them as well as what they have achieved. "Women are more financially independent, have basic literacy and are involved with coordinating and training other women and their children to achieve independence," Saxena said.

The class also helps lay groundwork for potential future Oswego students' involvement with getting villages fresh water in reflection of the college's Grand Challenges project, "Fresh Water for All," McKeown said.

Welcoming interactions

Justine Ochs, a senior majoring in human resource management and in communications and social interaction, found it interesting to talk with the women and the Indian students from St. Xavier's who live and do things differently than she does. One of the first things that struck Ochs was the hostel in which they stayed had no showers. Instead, they bathed with buckets of water. The lack of access to health necessities such as a flu shot made Ochs feel guilty for taking things for granted back in the United States.

Ochs found the poverty stunning, with children as young as 5 taking care of their younger siblings and not having proper clothes, she said.

However, Ochs and the rest of the group noticed how happy and welcoming the residents of Kolkata and the villages are. They saw big smiles of people who were more than happy to feed them their local food and teach them about their culture. "The people are economically poor," Saxena said. "But they are not poor in terms of love, in terms of passion, and in terms of talent."

Having been a part of the beginning stages of brainstorming the trip two years earlier, Career Services' Huynh has seen how successful the trip became and how interactive it was for the students. The students found the experience so memorable that Huynh spoke with multiple students who said they want to do something impactful and meaningful with their lives.

 "As a career coach, I help them explore their options," Huynh said.

The students saw firsthand the meaning of the popular Indian saying, "guests are next to God," because of the villagers' hospitality and willingness to share their stories with strangers visiting their land. “I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever forget,” Ochs said.

Ochs has already been broadcasting the program to friends. "I wish everyone could go on a trip like this," she said.

For more on study-and-travel opportunities at SUNY Oswego, visit oswego.edu/international, email intled@oswego.edu or call 315-312-2118.