Brown and St. Stephen’s Partnership Provides Students with Opportunity to Develop New Perspectives on India

6/8/10: One of the important achievements of President Ruth Simmons’ visit to India in March was expanding Brown’s existing agreement with St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. The partnership between Brown and St. Stephen’s college dates back to 1991, and has included both student and faculty exchanges.

The Brown in India program, organized by Brown’s Office of International Programs, allows students from Brown and other institutions to study alongside Indian students at St. Stephen’s, and at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. The new agreement between Brown and St. Stephen’s increases to 15 the number of students who may go to St. Stephen’s annually and for the first time will bring a master’s candidate from St. Stephen’s to Brown each year.

Students who have participated in the program in the past frequently comment on the way the experience challenged previously held views, and changed their understandings of India. Samuel Mencoff, an economics concentrator at Brown, studied at St. Stephen’s in the fall of 2009. While in Delhi, he also interned at The Economic Times, a leading business newspaper. Reflecting on his time in Delhi, Mencoff said that while Westerners tend to think of India as an exotic place, the ‘real’ India is that which one finds on the ground. “The real India is whatever is happening in India,” he said.
Mencoff is critical of Western students and professionals who are strictly development focused and go to India to work at NGOs without learning the language or culture. “It’s a silly concept: people who don’t understand the culture want to fix it,” he said. Mencoff was pleased with the Brown in India program, and in particular with the opportunity to experience life at an Indian college. He also appreciated the language learning component of the program, which includes a month-long immersion course in Mussoorie and regular language instruction in Delhi.

Rita Bullwinkel, a Brown junior concentrating in religious studies and anthropology, also embarked on the Brown in India program in the fall of 2009. She pointed to two ways that Americans generally view India: as a haven of spirituality and peace, or as a place sunk in poverty and disease. Both of these views, however, are overly simplified. To recognize the nuance and complexity of the country, one should dig deeper, live with the people, and learn the language, she said. Bullwinkel said that students who are planning to participate in the Brown in India program or another similar study abroad opportunity should be extremely flexible and ready to absorb new things. The students who got the most out of the program were the ones willing to socialize, interact, and just listen to people.

Anastasia Aguiar, who studied abroad at St. Stephen’s during the fall of 2007 and is now the coordinator for the 2009-2010 Year of India at Brown, agreed that it was important to be open to new people and new ideas. Although American students did spend time with each other, they also made an effort to immerse themselves in the life of the college through academic, extracurricular and social activities, she said. It was sometimes difficult to reconcile her day-to-day experiences in India with classroom learning about the country. She realized “the tremendous size of the diversity in the country,” which can be overlooked when India is treated as a unit.
“Being there, in some ways, I always felt like I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I appreciated the opportunity to keep re-thinking my understandings of India.”

By Watson Institute Rapporteur Samura Atallah ’11