Oberlin Alumni Magazine: Summer 2001 Vol.97 No.1
Feature Stories
When Worlds Meet
Visions of Oberlin
Safety Man
[cover story] Caught in the Act
Round Robin Takes Flight
Message from the President
Around Tappan Square
  When Worlds Meet
by Tom Pruiksma '98

The hardest part was leaving. It helped some, I suppose, that my last weeks were impossibly busy, but that couldn't keep me from thinking about having to say goodbye. When I arrived in Madurai, a city in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I had no idea how much would happen, nor how close my friendships would become.

Two-and-a-half years later, I stood in the railway station beside the Madurai-Chennai Pandian Express speaking with friends who had come to see me off. There were students from the American College who worked with me in the Shansi International Center and the Shansi fellowship recipients who would continue on to Madurai. My friend K.P.C. Pitchai, an organic farmer and social worker, was there, along with John Sundar, a sustainable agriculture activist. Former students of mine had come, as had good friends on the college staff and neighbors from the village where I had lived for over a year. Even my Tamil language teacher was there, traveling from the nearby town of Thirunagar.

In my bag was the plaque presented to me by the
Principal of the American College, and in my heart, an ache from having already said goodbye to too many people. Fortunately my best friends were coming with me to Chennai, where I would catch the flight home. We chatted and laughed about how many hours it would take to reach Seattle. Then, over the din, the officials announced the train's departure, and the four of us boarded our coach. I yelled farewell to my friends, telling them I would return, as you say in Tamil Nadu when you leave someplace.
Joining Worlds
It was seven years ago during a cold week in February when I first heard about Shansi. I was a prospective student visiting Oberlin. Tanya Lee '93, a childhood friend of mine, had invited me to tea at her house on Woodlawn Street. We had studied with the same piano teacher in Seattle, and she was a kind of hero of mine, playing the pieces I aspired to play. Tanya said she had been selected for a Shansi fellowship and would spend the two years after graduation in China. You can imagine how her stature grew in my mind. It didn't occur to me, of course, that I might end up with a fellowship myself, and it's only now, having returned from India, that I appreciate Oberlin's unique affiliation with this organization.

An overseas experience for new Oberlin graduates is probably the best known program of the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association. Graduates of other colleges envy the two-year fellowships for language study, teaching, useful community involvement, and cultural immersion in China, Japan, Indonesia, and India that Shansi offers each year.

Very few fellowships offer participants two years overseas, which are necessary in order to learn a foreign language and culture effectively. Because Shansi fellows (formerly known as "reps") hold college or university positions in the countries they serve, they become immersed in the community; they are not just outsiders with a stipend. Teaching allows fellows to interact with people and form friendships in ways not usually open to foreigners. So, too, does learning the language, a key aspect of the fellowships.

During my own fellowship in India, I taught spoken English in a program called Jivana Jyoti, which offers students with
physical disabilities a one-year course in computer skills and applications and English, often necessary for obtaining work in India. One of only three of its kind in Tamil Nadu, the program aims to improve the job prospects for its students, thus increasing their economic independence.

I directed the Shansi International Center at the American College--a library, meeting room, and audio-visual center that serves as a window to the world for the college community. Students are paid to help run the center, and those I worked with found the opportunity to collaborate in its administration and development particularly exciting.

Aside from language study and duties at their institutions, Shansi fellows are encouraged to explore in depth some aspect of the cultures in which they live. For me, this meant meeting farmers, activists, and thinkers involved with sustainable agriculture. Other fellows have learned music or dance, volunteered with nongovernmental or social-service organizations, or pursued an interest in language and literature. Lindsay Stark '99, for instance, is entering the second year of her fellowship in Indonesia. During a conversation with her language teacher she mentioned that she had experience working in special education. With much excitement he told her of two organizations that needed help. Lindsay now volunteers at one of them on a regular basis. This is an excerpt from one of her recent letters to Oberlin:
The place that captured my heart from the moment I heard about it is Pontih Asih, an enormous sanitarium that cares for about 90 mentally impaired people who are kept completely isolated from the mainstream. It struck me as being similar to what I have read mental-health facilities in America were like decades ago, although with many gardens and flowers. The residents all seemed to be extremely love-starved and fought each other to touch me, hug me, stroke me, cling to me, interact with me in any way they could. I became a frequent visitor and, when I saw the school, I was shocked to see children and adults roving wildly around the classroom, with one teacher and about 40 residents.

One day I brought in a big red tub and some rice, a funnel, and some plastic toy trucks. As I set things up for the children, I realized that not one of them had been doing anything at all. Such a little thing, my project, yet it kept them occupied for hours. Some let the rice run through their hands, enjoying the sensory experience. Still others pushed the toy trucks through the rice, creating a system of roads. I have learned so much from my work with the children, eager and engaged in activities that I hope are helping them to learn and grow. That intimacy and those relationships are something that I will continue to treasure long after I have finished my Shansi term.

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