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Q&A with Sara Hansen on immersion in India program

Sara Hansen
Senior, English major, emphasis in critical studies in literatures, cultures and film

Twelve University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students recently spent three weeks in India as part of the women's studies program's India and Global Feminism immersion program. By learning firsthand about gender issues facing their counterparts in rural and urban India, students increased their awareness of best feminist practices in specific cultural situations. The program was offered in partnership with women's studies students and faculty at India's premier women's college, Miranda House College (University of Delhi). In India — which has a long and rich history of women's movements and feminist activism — the students learned about gender issues in the context of Indian higher education and local nonprofit social justice organizations. Dr. Asha Sen,  director of the women's studies program and professor of English, and Dr. Theresa Kemp, professor of English and women's studies, led the program. 

Senior Sara Hansen was among the students who participated in the Winterim program. She took a few minutes to share her thoughts about the experience. 

What attracted you to the India immersion program? 

There were so many things that intrigued me about this particular study abroad opportunity. I have wanted to go to India for such a long time. When I was a sophomore in college I finally decided that, in one way or another, I needed to make the trip happen. There was a class I took called "Conservation of the Environment" and we had a unit on population increases and a documentary we watched talked about India in particular. The population expansion happening in India caused numerous social problems and one that really struck me was the practice of gender-selective abortion. After watching this video it was cemented for me. I knew I needed to go. I had been trying to find a trip through another UW school because the only trip to India that was offered at UWEC was one focused on international business relations. When I took Asha Sen's "Transnational and Global Feminism" class in spring 2014 and learned about the Global Feminisms trip happening the following winter, it felt like fate to me. I got more information and made sure to apply ASAP! 

Have you had previous experience navigating new cultures? 

Yes and no. New cultures can be seen everywhere, I think. People living in the town next to yours have a different culture. Anyone who is not you has different aspects to what makes up their culture. I think one of the things that really drew me to India in particular, however, was the vastness of differences that I was expecting to experience between cultures. But what I was definitely NOT expecting, was how most of the culture shock I experienced came from how large the city of Delhi was! It takes at least an hour to get from one side of the city to the other and that's by metro! The sheer number of people within the city was astounding.

Please share a couple of experiences or interactions you had during your time in India that had the greatest impact on you.

The trip as a whole was an extremely impactful experience but there are a few moments that really stand out in my mind. One particular instance that stood out was when we went to see the Taj Mahal. The entire place was PACKED. The lines to get into the building were absolutely insane. The tickets that we had said something along the lines of "very important guest" on them and, from my understanding, were given to us because we were international guests. With these tickets in hand, we were able to bypass the long lines and go straight to the front. Then, while on the grounds of the Taj, we were looking around and found that many people were taking pictures of us. It wasn't until I was sharing this experience with others afterward that I really comprehended what was happening. International guests were seen as part of the spectacle at the Taj. Complete strangers were approaching us, asking to take our picture without so much as a, "Where are you from?" It felt pretty dehumanizing. And then it occurred to me, that this was one of the first times in my life that I had been in the racial minority. I realized how bad I felt when I was made to feel like a spectacle because of my race. This experience was an important and impactful one because, for the first time in my life, I was a minority. I was simultaneously upset at Indians at the Taj for making me feel dehumanized and upset at myself for being so upset and not understanding how this anger was kind of overdramatic unnecessary and kind of coming from a place of privilege. I was upset and it was the first time I was having this sort of dehumanizing thing happen to me because of my race. I am not saying what happened was right, but I think it was a good thing to have experienced because it made me empathetic to individuals who have to experience things like this on a daily basis.

What surprised you most during your time in India? 

I think the biggest thing that surprised me during my time in India was how quickly we formed such strong bonds with the women from the Miranda House College and also among the women within our own Global Feminisms group. There is something so unique in taking a trip halfway around the world with a group of people, sharing the same experiences for a three-week period. You have to rely on one another. You really get to know one another;the good and the bad. It's an incredible growing experience and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the trip with the amazing group that went, including faculty members from the women's studies department, Dr. Asha Sen and Dr. Theresa Kemp. This cross-cultural immersion experience would not have happened if not for them, and for that I am extremely grateful. It was because of these two that our group of 12 who went to India formed the relationships that we did. I think that a special bond happens when people who share a common, humanistic passion come together. This program was put together not just as a program that allows students to experience a different culture, but to kick-start careers by allowing networking opportunities, gain confidence and form lasting relationships across the world as well.  

How did your time in India change you or change how you think about the world? 

Overall the trip just made me a more aware human being. Yes, there are innumerable differences between living in Eau Claire and living in New Delhi but I just more fully understood that you can go somewhere new where people dress differently, speak a different language, eat different foods, listen to different kinds of music, but still find that ultimately, where it counts, we are all the same. We all still face violence, oppression, racism, sexism … the list goes on. It is in the face of these things that we find important similarities.  

How did the experience impact your future plans? 

This experience definitely had an impact on my future plans. I approached the Global Feminisms program like an internship of sorts. Going abroad and working with NGOs like we did while in India was an absolute dream of mine. I thought that after college I was going to go back to India at some point and work at a place that provided support and resources for victims of domestic abuse. Now, after studying in India, I have a much more realistic idea of what doing so would entail and, to be honest, I do not think that this is something I could see myself doing for a long period of time. The work that these NGOs do is tireless, thankless and all consuming. It is emotionally and mentally exhausting and takes a special type of person to commit to the work. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to go to India and experience firsthand what pursuing this work would entail, but in doing so I have realized that I do not think I would be able to do it for long. My passion for women's rights, feminism and advocacy for victims of domestic violence has not changed in the slightest;it has only grown from this trip. The way in which I plan to direct these passions in the future is the only thing that has really changed. 

How did having this kind of experience enhance your college experience? 

Going to India has enhanced my college experience because it made me much more self-aware and I came back with a newfound passion for my education. It was such an honor to have been able to study at the Miranda House College at the University of Delhi. Because these students are some of India's best and brightest, I learned that higher secondary schooling is not very expensive in India but getting in is extremely competitive. You have to be seriously committed to your studies and doing well on your exams if you want to go to the university. Experiencing this shook me awake a little bit. The women from Miranda House College were so intelligent and passionate. Getting into school was no easy feat, and no one takes this for granted because of this competitiveness. Coming back to UWEC it made me appreciate my education so much more and realize that while I am here, I truly need to make the most of my time.