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Passage to India

Backwater boat trip in Kerala.

Bathing an elephant in Kerala.

On the bustling streets of Fort Cochin, en route to an ancient Jewish synagogue.

Award-winning temple arts performed by students at the Amrita Sanskrit Higher Secondary School.

Henna tattoo on the hand of Dr. Jed Metzger.

by Robin L. Flanigan

Nazareth College is developing a close relationship with a country more than 8,000 miles away.

The departments of religious studies, physical therapy, and social work have created separate but equally transformative opportunities for students to visit India, a place that has a strong and growing impact on the global economy.

“If Nazareth’s mission is to educate the whole student, doing that involves some sort of international context,” says Jed Metzger, Ph.D., associate professor in social work. “Twenty percent of the world lives in India, and if you really want to understand the way our world works today, you have to go there.”

Nine physical therapy majors and two faculty members traveled to the southwestern state of Kerala in March for an educational exchange. In addition to studying Ayurveda, an ancient Eastern approach to medicine, they donated equipment, worked alongside physiotherapists and student physiotherapists at a local hospital, and helped develop a community physiotherapy clinic modeled after the physical therapy clinics at Nazareth’s own School of Health and Human Services.

“This was far more than learning about physical therapy in another country,” says Jennifer Collins, P.T., Ed.D., chair and professor of physical therapy and vice president of the New York Physical Therapy Association. “We hear all these predictions for the health care industry, hear so much about this being a global society, but for our students, it’s all lip service until they experience it. It becomes a lot more meaningful when you’re in your khakis and your colleagues are in their saris, and yet you’re handling patients the same way. That’s when you really make the connection and understand that we’re all part of a larger community.”

Collins hopes to continue to offer the experience as an elective for Nazareth students, but also develop an experience open to health professionals outside the physical therapy field who may be interested in an advanced continuing education opportunity to study Ayurvedic approaches to health care.

Sherry Kessler ’14G, a Canandaigua native who went on the inaugural trip, vividly recalls the aroma of herbal oils and the moist heat of the treatment room, the daily morning yoga sessions, and the gratitude she felt for the entire experience. She hopes her work with patients in India will help her gain a deeper understanding of how culture influences patients’ perceptions and attitudes toward rehabilitation.

Kessler had one of her most enlightening moments at a Hindu temple, a visit that left her eyes in tears and her mind in awe at the level of awareness and acceptance she had mastered.

“It’s difficult to put into words what a truly emotional experience this was, and how it will carry on in me,” she says, relating it both to her personal and professional lives. “What I do know about myself since I had that moment is that I know that place exists. Not only in Kerala, but within me.”

For 15 days last January, Metzger and 12 Nazareth students, in partnership with the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in Kerala, attended the International Conference on Global Public Health and Social Work, visited the ashram of widely respected Hindu spiritual leader and guru Mata Amritanandamayi, sang and danced with orphaned children, and cruised on a house boat through the backwaters of Southern India.

According to Metzger, current social work models practiced in this country are embedded in U.S. culture and social constructs, but looking at the field through an international lens is vital at a time when social workers increasingly work with migrants, refugees, and trafficking victims.

Another trip is planned for 2015 to continue this “vitally important” and reciprocal relationship, adds Metzger, who recently fulfilled a request by the dean of Rajagiri College to write an article for the school’s journal. He hopes to bring the dean to Nazareth next summer to teach.

Traci Delario ’13, who majored in social work and is from West Irondequoit, says her visit last winter led to a greater appreciation for all human beings and the cultural differences we share. She recalls orphaned children leading her to their homes: “It was very humbling to see the happiness and gratefulness they had when showing me what most of us would consider far below our standards of living. Being there left me better able to understand the need for people’s desire to ‘belong’ and have a ‘family.’”

Corinne Dempsey, Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies and director of the Asian studies program, was able to offer a sense of belonging to the Nazareth contingent she brought to Kerala because she lived there for a year while doing her dissertation research. Her group traveled back roads on public transportation, visiting and staying at the homes of people who had been meaningful during her research. Along with overlapping with Metzger’s group twice along the way, students attended college assemblies where they discussed gun control, women’s rights, and divorce; introduced to many the concept of art therapy and organized a sidewalk chalk project for orphaned children; and visited numerous Hindu temples and Christian churches where local tradition regards saints and deities as siblings.

“People are not aware of Kerala’s peaceful pluralism because the media tends to be more interested in covering war-torn places,” explains Dempsey. “We need to know more about Kerala and how it works in order to have hope that we can live peacefully amid different religious traditions.”

Metgzer sums up India’s role in its new and burgeoning relationship with Nazareth this way: “It has ideas that are interesting, and it’s important for our students to see that. They can read it in a book, but it’s not the same.”


Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.

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