A group of eight Virginia Tech students spent three weeks in India meeting with change makers working to improve the living conditions of women and girls. While visiting Hyderabad, Kadapa, and New Delhi, they explored the roles empowerment and activism play in social issues in the country of nearly 1.4 billion people.

“How is change being made on the ground?” asked Bonnie Zare, program leader and professor of Women’s and Gender Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “The India and Social Justice program focuses on the perspectives of women, girls, and children and the different challenges that are presented over a lifetime.”

Jordan Faulkner, of Bland County, Virginia, a senior triple majoring in psychology, sociology, and criminology, credits leaders she met in India with fueling her passion for social justice. “It was incredibly inspiring to learn from people who have dedicated their lives to standing up for what they believe in, making the world a better place in the process,” Faulkner said. She plans to pursue a career in law. 

Zare described the study abroad program in this four-minute YouTube video:

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In the program taking place in late 2018, the students encountered many new stimuli, Zare said. These included the smell of unfamiliar spices and incenses, the blare of busy commutes with farm animals crowded next to cars and buses, and the vibrancy of colors of the clothing and buildings. The experience gave them empathy for international students coming to Blacksburg.

“When students arrived at the University of Hyderabad, they better absorbed how international students new to Virginia Tech might feel, noticing that each formerly familiar activity, such as moving through a cafeteria, meant a new set of rules to learn,” Zare said.

In addition to classroom lectures, students spent time with two empowerment organizations, Aarti Home and Voice4Girls. Aarti Home provides shelter and education for abandoned girls. The organization emphasizes that education leads to stable employment and tries to overcome the societal belief that girls are incapable of learning the same subjects as boys. Voice4Girls runs camps for teen girls.

Hayley Oliver, of Clifton Forge, Virginia, a senior majoring in literature and language, reflected on her time with the children at Aarti Home. “They were as kind to us as they are to each other. They included us without question. I am certain I have far more to learn from them than they could ever learn from me,” she said.

Before the trip, the Virginia Tech students organized events that raised more than $4,000 for the two organizations. “When students raise awareness about important efforts taking place in a developing country, the default assumption is that they are acting as ‘rescuers.’ While the students were glad to deliver the funds they raised, they saw themselves more as collaborators, helping with valuable work that has been growing on its own for years,” Zare said.

Kelsey McGregor, of Midlothian, Virginia, said the encounters left a strong impression. “It gave me a growing sense that girls are unstoppable. Voice4Girls teaches from a perspective of empowerment, recognizing that many young girls have been told to stay quiet and let others speak.” McGregor is a junior studying human development. 

Since 2002, Zare has led six student groups to India, introducing nearly 50 students to the country. “It goes beyond teaching a class. I have seen students grow and transform so much from thinking about the different ways people seek to make change despite some difficulties that seem very persistent,” she said.

For more information about the program, contact the Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs.  

Written by Rommelyn Coffren and Rebecca Poutasse, a senior majoring in multimedia journalism