The first batch of international students who are part of the University of Kerala’s new semester exchange programme talk about college life in Kerala

Usually, it’s the other way around – students from India head abroad to pursue their higher education. These days, it seems that the reverse is happening at the University of Kerala. Thanks to the University’s new ‘semester-in-India’ programme, spearheaded by its Centre for International Academics, in association with the New Jersey-based International Institute for Scientific and Academic Collaboration (IISAC), 13 college students, including nine women, from the United States are now “enjoying” a five-month study abroad programme at the University’s Karyavattam campus. On completion of the programme, which is from January to May, each student gets 15 transferable credits.

Student life for these youngsters is very much the same as their compatriots from Kerala. “Some of us attend regular class, learning courses as different as religion, tropical agriculture, genetics and political science, while others get one-on-one tutoring from the best of the University’s faculty. Just like other students, we’ve got papers to hand in and exams to sit for,” explains Megan Ritter, a student of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, when we catch up with some of the group, one quiet lunch hour at the canteen of the Centre for Bioinformatics.

Dressed in typical student wear – comfy cotton churidars or kurtas and jeans – they are all tucking into porotta and chicken curry with the relish of natives, eating with their hands… “We feel that it’s an important part of the cultural experience. We absolutely love the food here. In fact, when we went to North India recently, we so desperately missed masala dosas that we made it a point to have them for breakfast the day we arrived back in Kerala!” laughs Brian Oakey, who hails from Baltimore and is a political science student of St. Mary’s.

His college-mate Christine Zernickow explains: “We’re trying to integrate ourselves with the culture of the land and interact with fellow students as much as possible. For instance, we also often play badminton with them after class; we attended the hostel day celebrations; the women in the group took part in the Attukal Pongala; Adrianna Russel, a member of our group, took a contemporary dance class for students.... Some of us are learning Carnatic music and will be performing soon.” Emma Robinson, from Green Mountain College, Vermont, breaks into the first notes of the swarjathi ‘Ra Ra Venu Gopa Bala...’

Emma adds: “Everyone has been so welcoming and helpful. We’ve become instant celebrities. Teachers and fellow students are always inviting us to their homes.” Of course, they admit that the mode of studies here is vastly different from what they are used to back home. “In college we are all used to following proper schedules each day. Pushing deadlines for papers or projects is non-negotiable. Here everything is much more relaxed – sort of going with the flow. It takes some time to get used to,” says Kim Snyder, from Cornell University.

It’s kind of startling that they have adjusted so well to student life, with no trace of culture shock at all. “The culture shock was not as much as we expected it to be,” says Brian. “Actually, we’ve only had issues with the chaotic traffic. The first taxi ride, down the highway from the airport, was rather nightmarish! We’re not allowed to drive here but travelling on Indian roads is still quite scary,” he adds with a laugh.

That has not put a stop to their travel plans, though. Apart from a two-week introductory tour of Kerala, organised by IISAC, every weekend the group go on trips to nearby destinations such as Kanyakumari, Kollam, Madurai and Munnar. They’ve also visited Delhi and Agra, Pondicherry, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Some of them are scheduled to go to Sikkim soon. “We’re making the most of the opportunity to see as much of the country as possible. But we can tell you that nothing beats Kerala when it comes to open-mindedness. It’s indescribable but we’ve all felt that North India, Delhi particularly, is a lot less welcoming of foreigners,” says Brian. Kim adds: “I feel much safer walking in Kerala than the rest of India.” Emma sums up the entire experience thus: “We’ve all been keeping daily journals about the trip. And multiple times I’ve written: ‘this is the best day of my life!’”

Best of the best

The University authorities have been very careful about providing the best of facilities for the international students, be it standard of teaching, accommodation and good food.

“Faculty members of various departments and University authorities have been receptive to the programme, going out of their way to accommodate the needs of the international students, with lecturers even changing their style of teaching if needs be. One of the first things that the University did, for example, was to spruce up the toilets. Altogether, it has been a wake-up call towards self-criticism for all concerned, considering the expectations of these students is different,” says Dr. Achuthsankar S. Nair, head of Centre for Bioinformatics, and director Centre for International Academics, who is coordinating the programme.

The first

The first foreign student of the University of Kerala was a Briton by name of Wendy Orr, circa 1975. “She studied M.Ed in the Department of Education and used to stay in the women’s hostel in Thycaud,” says Dr. Achuthsankar. At present, ascross Universities in Kerala, there are 250 foreign students from across the world (Iran, Poland, Chile, Japan, to name a few), studying courses as different as yoga, Sanskrit, and engineering.