Learnings from a Trip to India

I had the tremendous opportunity to travel to India last month with Carol Altilia, Sheridan’s new Vice-President, Student Experience & Enrolment Management.  Notwithstanding some bumps (more on that below!), I loved it and plan on going back soon.

For this particular trip, our commitment was to experience the richness of a country so many of our students call home.  To that end, we spent a day with the people who represent our learning community in-country (agents); we visited a key academic partner:  The National Institute of Design (NID); we scheduled meetings with parents and families of current and former Sheridan students; we planned to visit several important cultural sites; and, we booked time with the Consul General in Delhi.  

I’m proud to say that much of our itinerary was informed by the students we serve.  Specifically, our colleagues in the International Centre helped Carol and I solicit input and advice about our impending trip.  We were amazed when over 500 students responded with suggested destinations; cultural advice; lists of things they most miss and wanted us to experience; and, travel tips.  

With regard to destinations, students focused on places that provide a sense of peace: Golden Temple, the Community Kitchen, Akshardham Temple, India Gate, Lotus Temple, Qutub Minar, and Mughal Garden.  In terms of cultural advice, we heard that India is diverse, rich in history and evolving.  Our students emphasized that manners, respect and family matter universally; we were also schooled on “Athithidevo bhava” or “treat guest as God”, which is part of the Hindu social code of conduct.  We were encouraged to be open, but cautious – particularly regarding food.  Awash a long list of what we should eat was an equally emphatic caution to avoid street food.   I liked this one: “Drink tea.  No coffee.”  Also, this kind advice: “There are two words – Namaste and Sat Sri Akal – try to use these instead of saying hello and you will feel like a part of India”.

Unfortunately, our trip was cut short after tensions escalated between India and Pakistan on February 27.  With concerns mounting over closed airspace and new travel warnings, Carol and I returned to Toronto via Mumbai and Zurich; we landed on February 28 after over 30 hours of travel across multiple time zones.

Despite its truncated length, I loved my time in India and – as stated above – plan on going back soon.  Even three days there were enough to make an indelible impression and impart learnings. Three things in particular stand out. 

As Carol, our colleague Sandeep Rane, Manager, International Business Development and I navigated a long, arduous trip home amidst much uncertainty, I was reminded of the courage it takes to study abroad. Imagine — having never before been on a plane — leaving home for what might be a twenty-four hour flight – in January – to a frigid climate. Too many of our students don’t have a firm housing plan when they get to Canada. They land jet-lagged and are adjusting to a new culture and unfamiliar food while searching for a place to live, finalizing their academic schedule and starting class. On top of all that, most are carrying a huge burden of knowing that others – families, friends and sometimes communities – have sacrificed to make their enrolment financially possible.

As educators, we talk a lot about resilience and grit. As I contemplated the journey international students take to get to us … my empathy and admiration for them grew.

Second, it’s impossible to travel as we did without being conscious of your privilege. I am a tall, fair-skinned woman who represents a prestigious post-secondary institution in Canada – a country highly regarded in India. We travelled in quality vehicles and stayed in a beautiful hotel. The largest democracy in the world, India’s economy is growing and evidence of social progress is everywhere. The gap between the haves and have-nots is nonetheless striking.  Further, it was noteworthy that as we navigated an evacuation because of escalated violence in the north, the Indian people we talked to were calm and circumspect, noting that violence in and/or proximate to Kashmir is normative for them. The idea of experiencing war is something I simply can’t fathom.

I left India feeling grateful and enriched. The people we met – all of them – were kind and generous. It was wedding season; the colours were rich, the clothes were stunning, and the music was awesome. The food I tried – albeit in hotels! – was rich and flavourful. Notably, everyone we met was so complimentary about Sheridan and how our learning community is contributing to economic and social change in India.

Before I sign off, I want to reiterate my gratitude for the quantity and quality of feedback we received from students.   Notwithstanding the demands of their learning and personal journeys, these community members invested in helping us travel successfully.  This is a tremendous testimony to Sheridan’s character and a huge point of pride. I can’t wait to go back to India and experience so much more of the wisdom that they had to offer.

Namaste.