More students working toward social justice in India this winter


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For many UI students, winter break means home, family, and a reprieve from classes.

For others, the month off means visiting a foreign country, more than 1 billion new faces, and three weeks of intensive, hands-on learning.

Expanding its course offerings this year, the INdIA Winterim program provides students with the opportunity to study issues of social justice and entrepreneurship in a developing country.

So far, approximately 90 UI students have signed up for the program, said Cory Petersen, a Winterim program assistant, and the number of participating students has skyrocketed since its first year.

In December 2006, students could take one class during their tenure in India. Officials hope students will be able to chose from up to 16 classes this winter.

Throughout the three week course, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 16, students work side-by-side with nongovernmental organizations to help find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Petersen, a UI alumnus who traveled to India twice as a student, said he explains the program with a question: “Do you want to learn how to save the world?”

And many students, such as UI junior Crystal Alft, answer that question with a resounding yes.

An experienced world traveler, with trips to Ireland, China, Nicaragua, South Africa, and much of Europe under her belt, she said she was excited to go to India to continue her work on social-justice issues. She is interested in stopping human trafficking, she said, and she would work with girls and young women who may have been forced into prostitution or ordered to marry leaders of local temples.

“Part of me will just want to give those girls a big hug,” Alft said, and despite any preparation she may take before working with the girls, “I don’t think anyone can be ready for that.”

And it’s not just students who can go on the trip. The program is open to anyone who is interested and Petersen said community members can enroll as nondegree seeking students and attend classes without receiving the three credit hours that traditional students earn.

UI Professor Rangaswamy Rajagopal, the program’s director, said he is also trying to get Indian students involved, citing the need for real connection and communication if they hope to resolve current problems.

“The real change has to come in India, from the people there,” Rajagopal said.

He plays an integral part in the program’s organization, seeking out agencies for students to work with. He said he wants to partner with the best organizations that can help students learn and grow to their fullest potential.

He called the India trips “transforming” and said the growth he sees in students makes him return year after year.

“The change is enough of an incentive for me to go back,” Rajagopal said.

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