It has been about a month since I made the twenty-hour journey from SFO to Chandigarh, India, and it already feels as though I’ve been here a lifetime. It has been such an amazing and earth-shattering experience. Although I have completed less than half of my stay–still five weeks to go–I have already learned more about myself as an individual than I ever anticipated.
So much of our identity is derived from our routine, and it can become difficult to distinguish outside of these barriers. Therefore, in order to explore this concept and to further develop who we are as individuals, we must immerse ourselves in unfamiliarity. Only then can our identity be truly tested, providing opportunity for self discovery. Though such immersion is never easy, I cannot possibly stress the importance of such an experience sufficiently.Upon arriving in the Delhi Airport after a sixteen-hour flight, I was immediately struck by the fact that I was across the world from everyone I knew and I began to second guess my decision. I had never traveled out of state independently, and wasn’t familiar with the native language or culture. However, once I finally arrived in the Chandigarh Airport and met up with my first host, Harnoor (who is now beginning her exchange with The Athenian School) and her family, my doubts subsided and my exchange began! The transition was, of course, disorienting at first; the time difference alone is 12½ hours. After getting over the initial shock, however, my experience has been incredibly rewarding.
One of the best experiences so far is that I was fortunate enough to arrive in time for Holi, a holiday which celebrates spring. On the day of Holi, Harnoor and I met up with a bunch of her friends and gathered outside to begin. The celebration consists of throwing concentrated color in powdered form on all individuals present, as well as spraying each other with water guns and, if you’re feeling brave, cracking eggs over each other’s heads. Although anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t particularly like getting my hair wet, let alone egged, there was something completely freeing about the experience. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I was instantly amazed by the spirit of it, one of carefree positivity. I can confidently say it was the messiest I have ever been–or ever thought I would be–in my entire life! The dye didn’t fully come off for about a week afterward and I might even still have a hint of pink in my hair, but it was more than worth it.
Shortly after Holi, it was time for me to join my new classmates for a three-day orientation camping trip in the foothills of Manali. The bus ride to the campsite was the first time I had the opportunity to venture outside of Chandigarh and experience the rural side of India. I remember being quite taken aback as we were driving and I looked out my window to see a large monkey sitting on the side of the road, an animal which I had only ever seen inside a zoo before. When we arrived, the instructors introduced us to the campsite and we participated in some fun camp activities.
The trip to Manali was a particularly valuable experience for me. It not only allowed me to get to know my new classmates, but it allowed me to challenge myself mentally, emotionally, and physically. I was immediately met with a large challenge upon discovering that the leading instructors did not speak English. Given that I am not familiar with Hindi, we immediately encountered a language barrier. Everyone involved was very understanding. Through working together and with the help of my new classmates, I was able to participate in all challenges, including descending a small cliff. This was one of my most transformative experiences on exchange so far. Not only am I afraid of heights, but this trepidation was tripled upon witnessing one of my classmates, who had not secured a decent foothold, lost her balance and came crashing into the mountainside below us. Thanks to the harness and safety precautions, she was perfectly safe, but I almost refused to follow through and participate. However, I knew that if I allowed myself to retreat, I would regret forfeiting my opportunity to challenge myself. So, after a prolonged moment of hesitation, I swung my legs over the cliff side and began to descend. After a short time my hesitation evaporated and I reached the ground safely. I was immediately SO grateful I had worked up the guts to do it. I think that’s one of the most important things to remember while on exchange: provided that there is no chance of physical harm, always take every opportunity to challenge yourself, because if you retreat, you will most likely deprive yourself of the opportunity to grow emotionally and learn more about yourself in the process.
After returning from Manali, I shifted houses and am now staying with Ishana Pasi, who completed her exchange at my school Athenian in Danville, California last year. She and her family have been extremely generous and have taken me to many wonderful places including the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It was breathtakingly beautiful and an amazing experience.
I have begun classes at Vivek High School. Since it is so vastly different from Athenian, attending Vivek been an incredible learning experience even though I have only been here for a very short time. The main differences between Vivek and Athenian lie in a few areas. Firstly, the curriculum is structured differently. Classes here are divided into sections based on an area of study which students have decided to pursue. At Athenian, students have a universal core curriculum which they may add to in terms of an art class or may modify in their junior and senior years. Secondly, the environment of study is way more formal at Vivek, as students are required to refer to teachers as “sir” or “ma’am.” At Athenian, we refer to teachers by their first names. Finally, specific uniforms are required at Vivek.
All and all, traveling to India this spring has been such an amazing experience. I already feel like a different person than when I left, as I have learned so much about myself and the greater world around me outside of our Bay Area bubble. It has made me way more culturally aware, more adaptable, more resilient, and more equipped to deal with the challenges which are necessary for us to undergo in order to evolve as individuals. I am excited to see what the next five weeks bring!
Rosalie Kenward reflects on her time in India
After two months in India, my exchange has finally come to an end. It seems strange to think that I have come full circle and write this while sitting by my fireplace, exactly where I was two months before my journey started.
Traveling to India this spring was the most transformative and life-changing decision I have ever made in my entire life. Going into the experience, I based this decision on logic, presuming that exchange would benefit me in a number of ways. I would gain independence, learn responsibility, and learn more about the world outside of the bubble I had been raised in. I knew going into the experience that I wouldn’t return home the same person I had formerly been upon my departure—and I couldn’t wait to see who I was going to become. And yet, although I knew I would be forever impacted by the experience, I couldn’t possibly imagine the extent of the transformation I was about to undergo. Now that my journey has come to an end and I am reunited with my community and my former life, I know that my perspective on the world around me, and on myself, has been shifted beyond what I could ever have anticipated.
My experience on exchange was intense to say the least. It was the first time I had ever been separated from my family. Prior to exchange, any experience I’d had with traveling involved me staying with an adult I knew well. As soon as I passed through airport security, I was hit with the realization that, suddenly, I was my own responsibility. It wasn’t something I had ever had to deal with before. Before, I had always had someone to look to for directions or advice, whether it was a family member or even a friend my own age. Now it was up to me to take care of myself. The responsibility was thrust upon me before I was even fully aware it was happening. It was daunting and disorienting.
Throughout my exchange, this was the thing I struggled with the most: learning to be responsible for myself in an unfamiliar environment. How to take care of myself, not only physically but also emotionally, when things began to feel outside of my control. While it was one of the most difficult aspects of my exchange experience, it was also one of the most valuable lessons I took away from it. Being thrust into the unknown is never easy and never comfortable, but it’s the only way to grow and to develop a strong and healthy relationship with yourself. It tests you in more ways than you imagine. It teaches you more about yourself than you previously thought would be possible. It will benefit you more than you can possibly foresee.
On my exchange, I had experiences that were amazing and fun, and others that were difficult or even painful. Now that I have come full circle and am reflecting back on my experience, I am grateful for all of it, for every single challenge I faced. Because it is the challenge we encounter that forces us to look within ourselves and discover the strength we have within each of us. It’s the only way to truly get to know ourselves and the people we are becoming, as we step outside of our routine and force ourselves to discover more.
If exchange were simply easy, there would be no benefit in the experience. In reality, it’s more than just a fun vacation where you meet nice people that you’ll reflect on pleasantly in the years to come. It’s a period of self discovery, where you are forced to step outside of your comfort zone and see the world outside of what you are familiar with.
It’s one thing to read or watch about the outside world in the media, but nothing compares to immersing yourself firsthand. It can be a daunting prospect to be alone amongst a community of people who share a common culture you are unfamiliar with and may even at times feel isolated within. However, it is the most effective way to gain a more accurate perspective on your own culture and community. We become so comfortable within our natural habitats that we often begin to take it for granted and complain needlessly. Once we take a step back, we can view our lives more clearly and accurately. We can see the aspects we are most grateful for that we had overlooked, the aspects we disagree with and desire to change, and the small blessings we never fully appreciated until we were deprived of them.
Upon my return, I experienced a bittersweet influx of emotion. I was, of course, devastated to say goodbye to all the wonderful people I had come to know in India, and all the beauty I had been introduced to in my new community; however, I was simultaneously filled with appreciation for my own community that I had been separated from and all the wonderful people in my life who make up both my literal family and the one I have created for myself, who support me through every challenge and mistake, and who make me feel loved each and every day.