Why would a college student nearing the end of her pursuit of a degree in education want to travel 30 hours in a plane to the other side of the world?
The answer for Megan Kipfer, who is a 2015 graduate of Redwood Valley High School, was “why not?”
So, during the J-term of her senior year at Augustana University, Kipfer boarded a plane in Sioux Falls, S.D. landing in New Delhi, India where she spent three weeks taking in the culture of a place she called completely different than what she had ever experienced.
“My roommate asked me one day if I had my J-term free, which I did,” said Kipfer, adding it was suggested that she travel to India, because it was going to be one of the final times that the professor leading the trip was going to be doing it.
Kipfer said she thought about it for a while, did some research and ultimately determined this was an opportunity she did not want to pass up. So she signed up to make the trip.
“This is a place that is completely different from the U.S.,” said Kipfer, adding she knew as part of a guided touring group she would be able to safely experience a part of the world she had never thought about studying on her own. “I want to experience the world as much as I can, and this was the perfect opportunity to start checking new countries off.”
Kipfer admitted she understood “barely anything,” about India when she signed up, adding she knew it had a large population of Hindus and that she would see extreme poverty. The group making the trip met a few times prior to their visit to go over some of the basic information about India, including an understanding of Hinduism, what they would see and how to interact with the people.
Kipfer said the group stayed in an assortment of hotels. They were very comfortable, which they did on purpose to lessen the culture shock.
“At our first hotel, we had a balcony that was over looking the Ganges River. It was mind-blowing until we forgot to lock the door before yoga, and a monkey broke in and stole our chocolate and left us a small and smelly gift on the top of our closet,” said Kipfer. “We went to Rishikesh, New Delhi, Puri, Bhubaneswar, Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur. Rishikesh was my favorite stay. We got to do sunrise yoga each morning at our hotel, because it is the birthplace of yoga. While we were there, we got to whitewater raft and cliff jump into the Ganges, had a picnic in the foothills of the Himalayas and explore some of the local shops on our own."
According to Kipfer, just about everyone they encountered spoke English which made communication so much easier.
“Everyone was very kind and welcoming of our group, which gave me a sense of relief because that was what I was most apprehensive about before traveling,” she said. “We also had a tour guide and dear friend of our professors along with us that helped keep us safe and would help with communication if anyone didn’t speak English.”
There was one experience in particular Kipfer said will forever be engrained in her memory – a visit to a school.
“As a future educator, seeing their education in action compared to the U.S. was the biggest culture shock I experienced,” said Kipfer. “The children were young, elementary age. They had uniforms, but you could tell that was one of the only pair of clothes they had, because they were covered in dirt and mud. We watched a small bit of their English lesson which was them learning about the members of the family. It was taught by rote; they didn’t have paper and pencils, not even a chalkboard. They sat on a concrete slab outside of a small school house, which they said they used only when the weather was particularly bad.”
In rural areas, Kipfer said she learned most children stop receiving an education after late elementary school. Instead they go to work or help their family.
“We got to sit with them after they had finished their lesson, and I have never received so many handshakes or hugs in my whole life. I taught a small group of girls how to play ‘A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea,’ and we played that until it was time to go,” she said. “When we started walking away, I had four girls trying to hold my hand at once, and I just gave each of them a finger. They didn’t care; they loved it anyway. They walked me all of the way to the edge of the village where our group was moving on to the next. I will never forget the love they showed me even though I was just a stranger that played a quick game with them.”
According to Kipfer, India has very different ways of living within its own country.
“The bigger cities are becoming more modern and have better education, but there are very small villages that don’t have electricity or running water. I saw the poorest, and I saw the richest. They are all intermingled as well, due to the caste system. There were shanty towns right next to political figures’ mansions. Two opposite ends of the extreme,” said Kipfer. “I learned that I have so much in my life that I take for granted. I am a 21-year-old woman that is in college, which rarely happens in India. I have all of my basic needs met and plenty of clothes to keep me warm. I have the right to work. I can vote and voice my own opinions. I can walk myself home after dark and arrive safely. The people of India are happy with their lives. This is what they have always known, but for me, it was so different from my own that I was constantly thinking about all I could do at home that I couldn’t do in India that I was so thankful for.”
Going to India is a very unique experience not everyone has the opportunity to have, added Kipfer. She said it will help her further connect to future students who come from a variety of backgrounds.
Kipfer said she can make connections with them if they are from there or have been there.
“It also helps me know what they have experienced previously and what will be beneficial for them as learners,” she said.
Kipfer is set to graduate at the end of this May and in September will be making a big move to Florence, Italy to teach English to elementary students. This was Kipfer’s second trip outside of the U.S. Two years ago, she went on a tour in Germany and Italy with the Augustana choir. She also has a list of other places she would like to visit and said that list is growing quickly.
“I would love to visit Turkey, Croatia, Greece and Belize just to name a few. I would even travel back to India for another visit or two,” she said. “I tried the authentic curry. It was too spicy for me to eat. However, I tried a milder dish called paneer, and it was love at first bite. There were wild cows everywhere. In the middle of the street, anywhere you went. We could look all we wanted but we weren’t supposed to touch them. I actually got to try on a traditional saree at a silk shop in Varanasi. It was truly an honor to participate and engage with their culture like that and to have the authentic experience with people that want to share it with me.”