IT'S a university course that shakes middle-class students right down to their shoes and values. And oddly enough, when young people sign up for James M. Mahan's Cultural Immersion Projects (CIP) at Indiana University, most aren't aware that they'll never view life quite the same again. But then, that's Dr. Mahan's point. He expects his program to open eyes and broaden vistas of would-be teachers. That's what CIP is all about.
Each year about 120 young people, who are studying to be teachers, leave their campus confines to undergo cultural immersion. For four months, the students eat, sleep, practice-teach - and sink or swim - in another culture. They go to inner cities, Appalachia, Indian reservations, Hispanic areas, or overseas.
All collegiate fun and games are dropped, because they're not traveling in a bunch. Some are totally alone ``out there,'' while others may go in pairs to the same general site. Right now, when most college kids are cramming summer vacations with temporary jobs and play, these students are tying up details for August departures.
``It takes a special type of person to go into CIP - someone who truly likes other people. And someone who's outdoors minded,'' says Mahan. While some areas are post-card scenic, they're isolated, maybe 100 miles from the nearest town.
``Out there, entertainment doesn't come through buying a ticket; it comes by generating it yourself,'' adds the education professor, who started the program 15 years ago.
Mahan requires extensive reading, writing of papers, and workshops before the students are permitted to leave. This preliminary study prepares them for the socioeconomic status of the ``other'' culture and also alerts them to proper decorum. For example, knocking on someone's door is the norm in Anglo society. But it's not always the best of etiquette to pound on the door of a traditional Navajo hogan. Much better to wait silently at a distance until you're welcomed in. Mahan doesn't want his prot'eg'es making slips like this.
When students are in the field, Mahan keeps tabs on them by mail, phone, and visits. And while they're gone, it's not unusual to find him fretting like a dad whose only daughter is late getting home from the prom. He makes certain his charges understand they're not to whitewash anyone or anything with their own views. They're in the field to work within a culture without ruffling feathers.
About 40 percent return to their sites to accept full-time teaching posts. The rest return home - wherever that is - to search for jobs in familiar settings. But home or away, all have learned there are backyards other than their own.
Here's what a few have to say about their experiences:
The inner city
``It's two different worlds where I am now and where I taught then, polar opposites,'' says Janis Hines, who did her practice teaching several years ago at Crispus Attucks High School in the heart of Indianapolis. At that time, Attucks was a predominantly black school. In the 1986-87 school year it was converted to a junior high, with a slim majority of black students.
Yes, Mrs. Hines wanted to join the Attucks staff permanently. But that wasn't feasible, because her husband, Fred, a fireman, and teen-age daughter, Mia, have strong ties in their hometown of Seymour, Ind. So this wife and mother now teaches biology at Seymour High.
Differences among people stem more from economics than color, according to Hines. ``The most overwhelming thing about the population there [at Attucks] wasn't that they were black, but that they were poor,'' she explains. ``I've never been poor, and I had no idea how pervasive poverty is. It affects every aspect of your life.
``The major struggle is putting food on the table. Long-term planning doesn't get any priority. There's a saying in the ghetto, `Just gettin' over,' and that means just getting to the next day,'' she says, explaining that many of her Attucks students lived this way.
Hines says she's now alert not to get trapped by stereotyping. ``Since Attucks, I'm very wary of lumping everyone into a group. Every kid I had there was an individual, as different from one another as every white kid I'm teaching today,'' says this mother who went back to college when her daughter was in eighth grade.
Hines says the kids in the inner-city high school were ``well groomed and clean cut,'' that she ``never saw a blade the whole time'' she was there. Occasionally, she recalls, the kids would pull some jargon to get a rise out of her - stuff like ``I'm gettin' in a ride and goin' to the crib 'cause I ain't gonna grease here'' (``I'm getting in a car and going home because I'm not going to eat here''). Hines laughs when she translates, and you know she has a roomful of memories stored up.
Richard and Maureen Doss, two Indianapolis natives, both found their stint in Appalachia a ``humbling experience,'' but they didn't miss the fun of adding regional goodies to their newlywed cookbook: ``Molly moochers'' (mushrooms floured and deep fried), ``leather britches'' (dried onions eaten with corn bread), and potato candy (mashed potatoes rolled in peanut butter and confectioners' sugar).
The two were married just 10 days before they took off for their practice teaching in West Virginia's coal mining country, about 45 miles from Charleston.
Again, it was the poverty that struck the student teachers. ``A whole family living in an old milk truck,'' says Mrs. Doss. ``Children with rotted teeth ... students wearing the same clothes day after day ... in many cases, the absence of television and telephones. Many of the people were very poor, but they'd give you the shirt off their backs.''
At first, the two teachers were viewed with suspicion, because they were strangers. ``They want to know who you are and what you're doing there,'' says Doss. ``The first thing you're asked is your name and what church you go to.''
``We lived in a dumpy little trailer, but we didn't have a lot of wants there,'' she says, drawing a comparison to their city life where advertising, TV, and competitive attitudes inflate wants.
``I think they have the right values down there - caring hearts, a simplicity, and the placing of importance on family rather than things,'' says Mr. Doss. Both he and his wife were impressed by children's respect, not only for their parents, but for adults in general. The two now teach in the Indianapolis area.
Life on a Navajo reservation
Jennifer Weiss, who practice-taught in remote areas of the Navajo reservation in Arizona, found that CIP offered a ``risk-taking type of learning,'' and to her that proved ``a more quality'' learning. So now, for a while anyway, she'll leave the affluent Chicago suburb of her upbringing to live on an avenue of challenges. This summer she'll work on a ranch in Idaho; then she'll teach ``somewhere.''
``Yes, I'd consider teaching out there [on the reservation],'' she says, qualifying her comment with ``for a certain length of time.''
An English teacher, Ms. Weiss lived in a dorm with Navajo children while teaching both second grade and later high school students. On weekends, she often stayed with a Navajo family in their circular hogan of one large room, with its only entrance facing east to the rising sun.
Like everyone else, she worked, herding sheep, making fry bread and mutton stew (opening cans of Campbell soup, too), and hauling water.
It's in the hogan that children learn traditional Navajo values, deeply rooted in the land. But Weiss explains that many youngsters are taken to boarding schools at age 5, returning home too seldom. These children become ``affection starved,'' and ``they're lured by the `Miami Vice' type of TV they see in the dorms. Whoever devised these boarding schools anyway?'' she says.
``Part of me says that it doesn't matter that the reservations may disappear. And another part of me cries out at the thought of losing the beauty and the wisdom inherent in the traditional Navajo way of life. It's as if I had awakened that part of me, inside myself, and now I must contend with its presence. But I'd much rather be facing this present dilemma than to never have had the option to choose,'' she says.