In pre-departure meetings and during our first few days in India, students asked us questions about aspects of India that appeared illogical to them. Often our response boiled down to: "It's India."
Over the last three weeks, students began to understand what that phrase meant. By the end of class, the class motto became "This is India." Or, as one of our van drivers said after one of many close calls in Bangalore traffic, "This is the India."
For the students and instructors, this class has made for an impactful few weeks. There was no protective shell around the students in India. From day one, students were out in the street and in communities, learning first-hand about issues ranging from water access (or lack thereof) in slums to solid waste challenges in one of India's fastest growing cities to women's lives in rural villages.
A number of students asked why we didn't help prepare them for what they did. In a way, we did. There were many reading assignments and discussions prior to leaving Minnesota. But those readings and discussions didn't sink in until we were on the ground in India, which is precisely why we do classes like this.
One of the inspiring groups we worked with was The Ugly Indian, an anonymous movement of Indians cleaning up cities throughout India. With The Ugly Indian, we spent a morning "spot-fixing" one of Bangalore's iconic streets, turning a neglected, trash-ridden sidewalk into a pleasant and hygienic public space. Our work attracted the attention of national publications and the neighborhood at large. It was a chance to be part of a movement that matters and to have fun getting into action with some of Bangalore's most motivated and known (but unknown) social entrepreneurs.
This was an amazing group of students. Every group or organization we visited commented on the maturity of the students and their insightful questions. The students enthusiastically embraced everything from eating street food to negotiating with auto rickshaw drivers over the right fare. These are not skills that can be taught in a classroom.
These weeks in India are some of the best weeks of the year for me. It's energizing to be with such passionate and smart young people and, despite the challenges, see their desire to tackle tough problems with their Midwestern grit.
"This is India," please meet "This is Minnesota."