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Students share ‘life-changing’ experiences abroad

The term “life-changing” kept recurring as Eastern Mennonite University students reflected on semester-long cross-cultural programs they took to India or Central America in university chapel services held last week.

Ann Graber Hershberger, professor of nursing at EMU, and her husband, Jim Hershberger, led 22 students in experiencing the world of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. They spent a sizable block of time with CASAS (Central American Study and Service), a cross-cultural study program in Guatemala.

The first two months, group members lived with families in Guatemala City while learning Spanish and studying the culture, history and current issues including immigration, trade and economics. Special focus was given to relating to and understanding the Guatemalan Anabaptist churches.

Students began their presentation on a creative note by performing an original rap music number that summarized the sights and sounds of Central America. Several read journal entries reflecting seminar highlights and observations, noting the “importance of relationship-building across language and cultural barriers.”

Several participants demonstrated the versatile uses of the corte, a fabric used for everything from decoration to dress. They performed another song, “Swift as a Tuk-Tuk,” a common form of transportation used for their travels throughout Central America. The refrain: “Wherever we go, we’re always late.”

EMU junior Michael Showalter from Clarkston, Mich., reported on a “significant” visit to a fair trade coffee farm and “the sense of hope” he felt the project provided to local communities. He noted, however, that “most small farmers must supplement that income by growing organic fruit and vegetable crops to sell at market.”

A highlight for EMU sophomore Anna Rogers from Richmond, Va., was participating in the Semana Santa, a Good Friday processional and worship service that included a time of confession and footwashing.

Kim Gingerich Brenneman, professor of psychology at EMU, and her husband, Bob Brenneman, led 24 students on a semester-long program in India, where they explored the country’s history, government and culture, studied and interacted with differing religions and learned fundamentals of the Hindi language. They lived with host families and kept daily journals.

Seminar members applied a red dot to each person’s forehead as they entered Lehman Auditorium for the chapel service, a traditional Indian decoration.

Through music, sketches and reading journal entries, the students presented “ten unbelievable things” from their study experience in India:

– The “variety of ways” students traveled around towns, cities and rural areas of the country – from walking or riding rickshaws, elephants and camels to riverboats and jeeps.

– The organizations visited: Mennonite Central Committee programs, Mother Teresa’s orphanage, a polio hospital and SIDH (Society for Integrated Develop of Himalayas), an educational and development program.

– Recurring sickness, treated by a host of colorful pills.

– The nature excursions, from the snow-capped Himalayan mountains to river rafting to a desert safari.

– The food, not always certain what was being eaten, but included catching the featured fowl (chickens) that became the next meal.

– Bathroom adventures; learning to use the ubiquitous “squat pot.”

– The “amazing sites” seen throughout the group’s journey.

– Animals everywhere, and the elephant and camel rides.

– The South of India that included working in rice paddies and a CNN India news team wondering what a group of American students was doing in such an unlikely place; taking Hindi classes and a 24-hour houseboat ride.

– The “diversity of people” from all walks of life in India: upper class students, rickshaw drivers and beggars. Students presented a monologue, asking what is the most helpful, appropriate response in these encounters.

Both chapel presentations closed with striking slide shows with indigenous music summing up a host of indelible impressions of these “life-changing” experiences” from the ever-shrinking global village.


– Story by Jim Bishop