On a long car ride back to New Delhi after visiting the Taj Mahal, Kendall Hack (Hilton Head, S.C.), Rachel Handel (Gaithersburg, Md.) and Carrie Stokes (Winston-Salem, N.C.) barely noticed the huge cow in the middle of the road, a common sight in India. After five weeks in India for a summer study-abroad communication class with Professor Ananda Mitra (MA ’86), seeing a cow in the road was notable not because it was unusual, but because of how unremarkable it seemed to them.
As their car swerved to miss the cow, their conversation with Mitra took a sudden turn, too. “It turned out to be the spark that led to this profound discussion,” says Hack (’11), who still vividly recalls the incident a year-and-a-half later. “We were really experiencing India, and we realized how invested we had become in the people and in the country.”
The students suddenly realized they didn’t want their experience in India to end. They peppered Mitra, who is from India, with questions about what they could do next to learn more about the country; he challenged them to come up with a plan. “He took us seriously when we said that we wanted to return,” says Hack. “He believed we could make it happen and never gave up on us.”
The plan took shape over the next year. Handel, Stokes and Hack visited Mitra’s office and home frequently to develop their plan and a return trip. But it wasn’t all about academics or the research project they were planning. They celebrated their birthdays over Indian food with Mitra and his wife and son. They attended Indian festivals in the area. And they gave back to the people they had visited in India; when a flood hit the Himalayan village of Leh just two weeks after they had been there, they raised money for the flood victims.
As Mitra mentored the students, they in turn became mentors to his 17-year-old son. Mitra uses the Indian word “ashram” to describe his family’s relationship with the students. “In its purest sense, it’s a teacher and the teacher’s family and a small group of students living under the same roof, living and learning together. We’re trying to adapt that for the 21st century.”
Last summer, Mitra took another group of students to India. Hack, Handel and Stokes returned also, to study the schools in Leh, which, because of its isolated location, lag behind those in the rest of the country. After visiting 10 schools and conducting surveys with teachers and students, they mapped out the schools’ strengths and weaknesses and suggestions for improvements. Hack graduated last year, Handel and Stokes will graduate in May. All are now working with Mitra to develop a service-learning trip to India so future students can continue what they’ve started.
Hack, who is a Wake Forest Fellow in the Provost’s Office, says Mitra gave the students the confidence and support to pursue their dreams. “He pushed us to do things that I wouldn’t have thought I could do. Sometimes you need someone to point out that you can do it.”