MUSSOORIE, INDIA — Just hours after shaking jet lag from his head, Baikal Harris was helping the village children chop firewood and carry it home. Becca Nestler was helping make chapattis, or Indian flatbread. Jo Beer was helping to cut and gather animal fodder. And Joanna Petticord tried hard - to no avail - to milk some water buffaloes.
It may seem a funny way to earn college credits, but these experiences - part National Geographic and part reality TV - may give these American college students more of an understanding of how a typical Indian village works than they could ever gain from reading a book.
Mr. Harris, a senior at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., says that spending time in an Indian village has made him change his view of the meaning of poverty.
"The family we stayed with, their entertainment was just keeping busy," he says. "They were so proud of the land they had that gave them all the food they needed. They were fulfilled by what it took to get by."
Barely a decade after the Internet boom made it possible for mere college students to turn into hotshot executives, it comes as a bit of a shock to find college students studying life at its bare essence.
But the students of Warren Wilson College are hardly alone in seeking out the hard life, the gritty underbelly of a developing society that even most Indians would prefer not to see up close. And the professors who guide them on their travels say it is this experiential learning, rather than abstract lectures, that gets students to challenge old assumptions about living standards and resources, globalization and development, and you know, the meaning of it all.
"The purpose is to have something happen to us, a number of experiences so that we are really immersed in a culture and we have to really deal with it," says Bill Mosher, professor of intercultural studies and leader of the Warren Wilson study group. "You get overwhelmed a bit, and then you keep going. It's fun in a hard way."
Study groups like this one might seem rather retro, at a time when American executives like Bill Gates are studying the Indian software industry, out of admiration and fear of being overtaken. But for all the attention on high tech and call centers, India's economy is still driven mainly by agriculture. Its population lives primarily in villages. And its tourists - despite the plethora of ayurvedic spas and lavish Mogul-style castle hotels - still prefer a $10 hotel room and a 50-cent plate of lentils and rice.
It's this simple life that attracted the 11 students of Warren Wilson College to come to India, and the simple life is what they found themselves living soon after arrival in the Himalayan villages around Mussoorie.
"My [host] family wouldn't let me do anything, but I really wanted to milk a water buffalo," says Joanna Petticord, a junior. "They used to get up really early in the morning, so when I saw them sneak out, I followed them. I just inserted myself and then eventually they let me watch and feed the cows."
Harris, the senior and intercultural studies major, was amazed that everyone in the village worked - even the children. "The children were chopping wood and carrying 50-pound stacks on their heads," he says. "When I tried to take it from them, they would just laugh at me."
Nicholas Bissett, a junior, says he has never seen such poverty as he saw in cities like New Delhi.
"You either love it or you hate it," he says of India. But in the villages, where urban beggars give way to hardworking farmers, herdsmen, and craftspeople, he adds, "I didn't see poverty there at all. They have such a rich life. They don't have money, but they live very well."
Other colleges that send students to study abroad say programs in developing countries are generally more popular than those in more developed countries.
"We have kids who want to see how the other two-thirds lives," says Gary Fleener, director of the study abroad program at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., a small liberal arts college catering mainly to upper- and middle-class families. "On a national level, study abroad programs are a growth industry. And a substantial amount of that growth is for programs in the developing world."
In Mussoorie, the Warren Wilson students are packing their backpacks for their next adventure: living among the villages served by a Buddhist rural-development society in Sri Lanka.
Then in late November, they'll head back to India to work with a Gandhian institute for community development in the western state of Gujarat.
Professor Mosher says he's not sure what the students are going to carry away from this experience.
"When you take a trip like this, it's not about academics, but it certainly is learning," he says. "It gets in the bones somehow."