Global

Alumni Q&A: Sustainability, Education in India

Kaitlin Higgins
Global Editor

Christina Murphy
Contributor

After graduating from Goucher College with degrees in peace studies and French this past May, Christina Murphy ’12 headed to India to build upon her international experience. Below, she tells The Quindecim about her time abroad thus far and some of her plans for the future.

The Quindecim: What made you decide to go abroad after graduation?
Christina Murphy: I wanted to take a year off before starting graduate school, and I wanted to get more international experience as well. So I decided to spend part of the year working, and part of it traveling.

The Q: What exactly have you been doing while abroad?
Murphy: I spent my first month here in India volunteering with two different organizations, and have spent the second month traveling around with friends that I met here. I spent my first two weeks here at Sadhana Forest, a sustainable living community and reforestation project in the Tamil Nadu state in the south. Then I spent a few weeks teaching English at Parijat Academy, a school for underprivileged village children in the Assam state in the northeast. Now I’m in Rajasthan state in the west for a few weeks to travel and be a tourist.

The Q: How much did Goucher influence what you’re currently doing, and how did it prepare you? Is there anything you wish you had gotten from your Goucher experience (or elsewhere) that would have been helpful during this trip?
Murphy: Goucher definitely influenced my trip – it helped shape the lens through which I view culture, social issues, and tourism. At Goucher, I was part of the International Scholar’s Program (ISP), and a lot of the readings and discussions from those classes have been very pertinent here. Plus, having spent a semester abroad during college has helped me feel more comfortable with the visa process, language barriers, and navigating a new culture. And my French degree has actually come in handy here – I have met people from France, Switzerland, and Quebec! There’s not a whole lot that I wish I had learned at Goucher before coming here – maybe some Hindi would have been useful.

The Q: What was your study abroad experience during your years at Goucher like?
Murphy: It was good! I spent a semester studying in Paris, France in 2010. As part of the program, I took classes part-time and also did an internship working with African immigrants in the city.

The Q: How have your typical days differed depending on what you’ve been doing?
Murphy: During the first two weeks at the sustainable living community, we woke up at dawn and spent the morning working in the forest or doing projects around the community (gardening, composting, cooking, etc.). We had afternoons and weekends free to explore local villages, go to the nearest city, or relax. There were also workshops every day on a variety of subjects taught by members of the community.

At Parijat Academy, I taught English and drawing for kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd graders. Classes went from 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. During the afternoons, I would walk to the closest village, help around the house, or hang out with some of the kids that live at the school full-time. I was living with the family of the school’s founder and principal, so I really enjoyed just being a part of family life (cooking dinner, playing with the kids, etc.).

Now that I’m just traveling with friends for a few weeks, there’s not really a typical day anymore! We have been moving to a new city every two days or so, usually via public bus or train. Sometimes we try to find a Couch Surfer to stay with beforehand, and sometimes we just try to find a cheap hostel when we arrive. Then we’ll walk around the city, see the sights, and interact with locals. Nights are usually spent having long dinners and planning our next move.

The Q: What have been some of the most unexpected things about your trip?
Murphy: Well, this isn’t really unexpected, but I am constantly struck by how incredibly diverse this country is. I have been to three different regions so far, and each one is linguistically, culturally, ethnically, gastronomically, and ecologically different!

The Q: Has there been anything particularly challenging during your travels? Culture shock? Plans gone wrong?
Murphy: Luckily, I haven’t had many problems so far. I have avoided any major health problems and haven’t had any issues from food or water (thanks to my trusty water purifier!). There are definitely times when India can be very overwhelming, particularly in urban or very poor areas, so I’ve learned to listen closely to my body – rest when I need rest, drink lots of water, and give myself plenty of time to adjust.

I haven’t had too much culture shock, although it has been hard to get used to being constantly looked at. Being white and a foreigner, a lot of people stare or want to take my picture. Usually it’s just innocent curiosity, but it can be exhausting at times.

Also, learning how to haggle has been difficult. I try, but I’m sure I’m still overpaying most of the time!

The Q: What is the most exciting or incredible thing you’ve experienced?
Murphy: There’s no way I can narrow it down to just one thing! Getting to know people from all over the world (transcending those boundaries, in true Goucher fashion!) has been amazing. Being a part of a family and community life while teaching at Parijat Academy was such a special experience as well. I was there during Durga Puja, which is the biggest festival of the year in that region, so I got to be a part of the celebrations and rituals. And finally, the hospitality that I have experienced here is incredible. Last night, for example, I randomly started talking to two people in the street and within 30 seconds they invited me into their home, made me tea, introduced me to their entire extended family, and invited me to come to their brother’s wedding. That kind of openness is so rare in the US!

The Q: How would you describe certain aspects of your trip? The food, the culture, the environment, the music, the nightlife, etc?
Murphy: Like I said before, India is incredibly diverse, so it’s impossible to make any general statements about the country!

I have spent most of my time here in rural villages and small cities. In these areas, there is no real nightlife – people are home with their families soon after dark. These areas are also more conservative in the way people dress. Even though it was really hot in the south during my first two weeks (temperatures in the 90s and very humid!), I had to make sure that my shoulders and chest were covered, and I wore pants or long skirts.

In the cities though, things are more lax and people wear more western-style clothing.

The food here is amazing. As a vegetarian and bread-lover, I am in (a spicy) heaven. Usually for lunch or dinner I will have “thali,” a standard meal consisting of rice, different curries and sauces, and bread. I also drink a lot of chai and milk tea. You can get a small cup at a roadside stand for 6 rupees (10 cents!).

I am also slowly mastering the art of eating all meals with my hands. No silverware necessary!

The Q: What do you plan to do once you return from abroad? Are there any more trips overseas in the works?
Murphy: Once I get back, I will be finishing graduate school applications and working. In December I will be traveling to Uganda and Rwanda for a few weeks to take part in a conference, which I am super excited about. I am also applying to a few graduate schools in the U.K., so I might end up moving to Europe next fall. We’ll see!

For more information on the places Christina Murphy has volunteered during her time in India, visit http://sadhanaforest.org/ and http://parijatacademy.com/. She would also like to give a shout-out to the website Omprakash (http://omprakash.org/), which is where she got connected to the school.

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