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Study Abroad: New Perspectives
While studying abroad in Bangalore, India, Kau Guannu began to think seriously about law school. "I applied when I got back."
The program she was on was called Grassroots Activism. “It was really focused on what different social justice groups are focused on there in Bangalore. Some were more government-focused, nonprofits trying to work with the government to make sure they’re providing the resources their citizens need. Some of them focused on women’s issues, some of them focused on poverty-related issues and access to resources, things like that, so we visited a number of community and nonprofit organizations.”
When asked why she chose that particular program, Kau answers, “I wanted to pick something that was different that I might not get an opportunity to visit in the future.” She goes on, “I wanted to learn more about their community organizing efforts and how they do things over there, and hopefully learn a few things and come back with a new perspective on different issues.”
Before going, though, some of Kau’s family members were confused by her choice. She remembers, “When I told my family that I was going to travel to India, a lot of them were like, ‘Why do you want to go there? That’s like a third world country.’ I couldn’t tell if they were angry with my choice or just misinformed.”
Her family’s words got to her initially, she says, “I felt like even though I was trying to block that out, I still kind of kept some of those thoughts in my head. So, I got there and I was expecting to see certain things based on that mindset, but it was so different. It’s very different from what I feel people think when they’re over here in the States, and they don’t have that firsthand experience.”
When she first got there, Kau recalls feeling sick, too. She started having a reaction to the malaria tablets that she had taken a few days before leaving. “It was making my throat feel all weird, and it was giving me these huge stomach pains.” Despite this rough start, Kau still had fun on taking part in the program, acquiring new ideas and learning several new skills. “At one of the women’s organizations, they were teaching some of us how to climb a coconut tree.”
She unexpectedly got to learn some Indian Sign Language, too. “I met a group of deaf people, but it was kind of different because I knew American Sign Language and they knew Indian Sign Language, and we were trying to figure out if there were any connections. So, like I’d be signing and they’d look at me and I’d look at them and I’m like, ‘I don’t think they understand what I just said,’ and then they’d sign back to me and I’d be like, ‘No, I didn’t get that.’ Luckily, they had a few family members who were hearing, and they would translate back and forth. I learned a couple different signs from them.”
Even though she was only over there for a short time, Kau still experienced challenges upon returning to the U.S. “Coming back was the hardest challenge, because you just see things differently. I think it’s called reverse culture shock. Things are just so much different here now that I’ve been exposed to something else.”
Kau’s time in India changed her perspective, she says, “That was my first time being out of the US, so it was a big leap of faith, but it was totally worth it, because I feel like I got a reality check. It made me realize that a lot of the things we complain about aren’t real problems. It made me realize how fortunate my life is but also how much more I could be doing, even just the little things. That’s what I changed with my daily lifestyle; I do what I can to put good out into the world.”
She goes on, “It definitely affected my motivation to apply to law school because I applied when I got back. I feel like it solidified what I wanted to do. I was interested in human rights and civil rights issues, but it didn’t click for me until I went to India and when I came back, I was like 'I think I can actually do this and I want to do this for the rest of my life.'”
This fall, Kau will be attending the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. “Right now, I’m not 100% sure what kind of law I want to go into. I’m interested in human rights and civil rights law, but I’m also going to keep an open mind just because I don’t know when I get there, who knows what I’ll end up liking. Working for a nonprofit or governmental organization is one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do, so I kind of see myself doing that as an end goal, but we’ll see.”
She is thinking about using her passion for human rights and civil rights to maybe go abroad again someday, she says, “I’m originally from Liberia, so I’ve been thinking about, after I get my career solidified, how I can give back to my community.”
Kau would encourage any student to study abroad. “I always tell my friends that you can always make more money, but you can’t make more memories. It’s totally worth it. It changes your perspective. It makes you have respect for people from other cultures.”
Visit the Study Abroad website.
Top image: Kau (second from the left in the front row) and other UMD students on a Grassroots Activism program in Bangalore, India, in 2016.