A Cultural and Academic Experience: Students Share Stories from Intensive Two-Week Engineering Course in India

Three Franciscan engineering students recently returned from a short study abroad program to the Indian state of Kerala. In a panel style discussion, Alyssa Whitmore (sophomore, mechanical engineering), Tony Prebilic (senior, computer information science), Ben Klement (junior mechanical engineering) and Dr. Derek Doroski, the Franciscan University faculty member who traveled with them, recounted their trip to other students and faculty in the hopes of encouraging attendance in future semesters.

Hosted by Rajagiri School of Engineering & Technology in Kerala, the students engaged in an intensive two-week machine learning course. The class primarily focused on computer science, heavily utilizing Python. The main goal of the class was to give students a taste of the teaching style prevalent in India. It consisted of four eight-hour class days spread across the two weeks. While this is not the standard class schedule in India, it did demonstrate the heightened focus on classwork as opposed to homework. Prebilic commented that the teaching style relied on collaborative problem solving in class much more than is typical in an American setting.

In addition to the classroom experience, the students recounted the many cultural experiences in which they partook. Spread throughout the two weeks of their stay, they participated in various excursions and events. Rajagiri hosted a culture night that consisted of performances of traditional song, dance, and mime. The students then enjoyed an exquisite evening aboard a riverboat with delicious food, an open dance floor, and a lovely sunset over the water.

The students explored local culture through both immersion and museums. They visited the Hill Palace and Dutch Palace museums where they received a fascinating overview of the history and culture of the region. The mutual respect between religions in the area stood out to the students not only in the museum, but throughout their stay. Despite being majority Hindu, the information the museum presented showed an appreciation for the contributions of both Christianity and Islam to local history.

After visiting the museums, the students went to Kaktharatha Village where they participated in many everyday activities practiced by the locals. From coconut picking and basket weaving to rope making and roof construction, the students got a firsthand experience of life in an Indian village. The last adventure the students shared was a trip to Munnar. There they enjoyed an elephant ride which Whitmore, something of an elephant enthusiast, found special. Later they watched a performance of Kalari martial arts, in which Prebilic volunteered to participate as an “extra”. On their last day there they rose early to climb a mountain and witnessed a breathtaking sunrise, of which Whitmore said, “It was so beautiful just to be surrounded by God’s creation.”

The presence of Catholicism is large in Kerala, and studying on a Catholic campus gave students the opportunity to attend mass and have the kind of interactions with clergy that Franciscan students are familiar with. The liturgy practiced in the region is of the Syro-Malabar rite, an eastern rite of the Catholic Church. Both the students and Dr. Doroski noted this was an edifying spiritual and cultural experience and encouraged others to take advantage of the opportunity to take part in it. They made a special trip to the International Shrine of St. Thomas, where they walked the paths that St. Thomas the Apostle, the evangelizer of India, had traveled.

The students were collectively impressed by the outstanding hospitality directed toward them by both the university faculty and the locals they met during their explorations. Klement in particular spoke highly of the hospitality they found at the university saying, “The don’t look to just meet your expectations, they look to surpass them.” His peers wholeheartedly agreed with this sentiment, and they each made several references to their positive experiences with the locals.

Dr. Doroski encouraged students to view the trip from a missionary perspective as well. He explained that while the spiritual benefits the students receive from the trip are profound, the impact the students have on the local Christian community may be even more so. The Indian people hold Americans, and American ways of thought, in high esteem. This has positive effects for the development of the country but has also led to a significant decrease in family and religious values. The example set by young, fervent American Catholics would have a significant effect on preserving those values that have for so long been a part of Indian culture.

Global Academic Partnerships, led by Dr. Tiffany Boury, at Franciscan University will begin planning for the 2024-2025 academic year to expand offerings for both two-week excursions, internships and full semester experiences reflecting the recent student engagement survey sent from Dr. Boury’s office.  This first group of students and Dr. Doroski strongly encourage all students to show interest and if given the opportunity, to attend a semester in India for a beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For more information or to meet with Dr. Boury about global interests and opportunities, you may reach her at [email protected].