Program's students venture from Ithaca hills to Nepal mountains

Monks chanting at dawn. Snow leopards at twilight. Not images that come to mind for most Cornell alumni recalling their college experience. But then, the Cornell-Nepal Study Program is anything but ordinary.

Since 1993, when Cornell Abroad established the Cornell-Nepal Study Program, 32 students have journeyed halfway around the globe to spend a semester in the nation of 20 million nestled beneath the Himalayas. Students earn 15 credit hours -- and a broader perspective -- at Tribhuvan National University, located in the ancient town of Kirtipur, about five kilometers from Kathmandu. Classes are taught in English by Tribhuvan University faculty from its departments of botany and sociology/anthropology.

The Nepal program is unusual in several respects, according to Urbain DeWinter, director of Cornell Abroad since 1988 and former director of Cornell Abroad in Seville. For one, it offers training in the natural, as well as the social, sciences.

"It used to be that study abroad programs were exclusively in the humanities and social sciences," said DeWinter. "But Cornell students have the option of studying either the country's peoples and cultures or its ecology and environment."

Nepal, one of the world's poorest nations, is extremely ethnically and biologically diverse; it rises almost from sea level to the 29,028-foot Mount Everest.

The ecology option sold natural resources major Jillian Ashley.

"I wanted to continue being able to study environmental issues while I was away," said Ashley, now a senior, who went to Nepal in the spring of 1994. "A lot of the programs I had looked at in Europe and Australia didn't really offer that." The program is unusual for another reason, said Kathryn March, associate professor of anthropology who helped design the program and serves on Cornell Abroad's faculty executive board: "Ours is the only program in Nepal where American students learn solely from prominent Nepali professors and live with Nepali students."

Each American is paired with a Nepali roommate in one of two residence houses, segregated by sex (in keeping with local custom). The women's hall sits next to a temple, where the aforementioned monks give women students a melodious wake-up call.

Much of the students' learning occurs far from the residence halls, in extended field research projects. Ashley spent nearly a month in the remote mountain village of Sikles, home of the Anapurna Conservation Area Project, which promotes agricultural development and works to minimize the environmental impact of trekkers.

Government major Alex Hildebrand studied how current trends in international development are affecting rural poverty in the villages of Chappa and Khudurke. And graduate anthropology student Abraham Zablocki went to the Dolpo district, where he observed the effect of Tibetan social stratification on religious practices (and where he saw a snow leopard).

Cornell is recognized as one of the foremost institutions for South Asian studies in the United States, March said. It is one of the few universities in the country that teaches the Nepali language; and though they don't have to, most students in the Cornell-Nepal program study the language before they go to Nepal. When they get there, they discover that Nepal has an active Cornell alumni club, whose members regularly host gatherings for them.

March said the Cornell-Nepal program's greatest strength is its mission of enhancing research opportunities for Nepali students and faculty as well as those from America.

"As scholars working in Nepal, we have to be concerned not just with what we learn there, but with what we give back," said March, who has conducted research on Nepali gender roles since 1973. Cornell-Nepal has funded postgraduate study for almost 50 Nepalese nationals, and last summer it brought Tribhuvan professors Ram P. Chaudhary, a botanist, and Krishna Bhattachan, a sociologist, to Cornell to tour research and library facilities.

"No other study program in Nepal pours its resources back into an academic institution the way Cornell's does," March said. "It provides a model for the kind of exchange that all universities should be promoting."

The Cornell-Nepal Study Program is just one of the latest of several abroad programs established since Cornell Abroad opened its doors in 1985. The office sends more than 500 students to more than 40 countries each year through its own programs and in arrangements with other American universities, DeWinter said.

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