by Tom Pruiksma
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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