Due to the the COVID-19 pandemic, exchange students scheduled to participate in a NSLI-Y Scholarship Program were unable to do so in person, and instead participated in virtual programming. Thanks to the NSLI-Y Alumni Travel Program (ATP), a program of the U.S. Department of State, these students recently had the opportunity to take part in a shorter exchange and practice the language they had learned through their virtual experience. NSLI-Y immerses participants in the cultural life of the host community, giving them formal and informal language practice and sparking a lifetime interest in foreign languages and cultures. Participants receive intensive language instruction, live with a host family for all or part of the program, and participate in a variety of cultural activities. Read on to discover more about the NSLI-Y ATP in India!

Students on a boat looking at the sunset

The ATP in India had 12 participants. The program lasted 10 days and focused on using the language these participants learned virtually in real-world interactions through sight-seeing and cultural excursions on program.

On May 22, 2023, the NSLI-Y ATP Hindi participants had the opportunity to experience the Ganges River at dawn. The group woke up around 3:00 AM in order to leave by 4:30, they arrived near the river by vehicle and then walked towards the shores. The cultural excursion began at the Assi Ghat, which is a long stretch of cement steps that leads down to the river. Most ghats in Varanasi are used for bathing, but there are a few “burning ghats” where public cremations take place. The Assi Ghat is the furthest one south and one of the largest in Varanasi. A participant, described seeing the sunrise on the excursion:

“Watching the sky light up with red and oranges while on the Ganga that reflected those colors back was truly transformative…The experience was so peaceful and meditative – definitely worth waking up at 3 AM for!”

Students on a boat

The Ganges River, Mother Ganges, or Ganga Ma as locals refer to it, is considered sacred in the Hindu tradition, as its water is thought to cleanse believers of sin and aid the dead on their path towards heaven. The historical city of Varanasi, India sits on the shores of the Ganges and many activities in the city are centered around the river. When the group arrived at the Ghat, they were welcomed by the sounds of a worship ceremony, with chanting and ringing bells filling the air. One student summarized her experience on the Ganges by saying:

“While I personally am not Hindu, learning about this has encouraged me to revisit what life means to me and to make the most of it while I’m here.”

Another participant said of the NSLI-Y ATP program:

“As an Indian American, this program helped me understand some of the deeper meanings behind my culture that I never would have been able to appreciate otherwise.”

Ganges 3

As the group made their way to the banks of the river, they boarded a large wooden launch and began their boat tour of the river Ganges. As the sun began to rise over the horizon, the shores of the river sprang to life as the city’s inhabitants came out to begin their daily activities. The participants glided along the river and learned about the cultural and historic significance of the landmark while reflecting on their experiences. One student noted that:

“The NSLI-Y ATP truly allowed me to experience India at a depth that was not possible in the virtual experience. Immersing yourself in a country is the best way to learn about its culture”.

Read the original blog post here.