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Winter 2019 Issue 1 (January 18, 2019)

Disclosing my study abroad nightmare

January 18, 2019
By Ross Matican

How low does the bar have to be set for Carleton administrators to enact change in response to faculty wrongdoing? This is the question that lurked in the back of my mind as I witnessed a disaster unfold on my off-campus studies program last fall.


I was a student on the Carleton Global Engagement Buddhist Studies program, which is a semester-long program based in Bodh Gaya, India. Antioch Education Abroad operated the program until 2016, when Carleton took over, retaining its semester schedule and assuming responsibility for applicants and enrolled students from a variety of institutions. Bodh Gaya is known for being the site of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment—from the roof of the monastery where I spent much of my time, I could see the famed Mahabodhi Temple, which stands next to the tree under which it all began.


The irony of Bodh Gaya, however, is that its religious significance seems to overshadow its material poverty. This is a complicated topic, one that requires honesty and sensitivity. In short, economic development for tourists has not tracked living standards for locals. In 2002, the Mahabodhi Temple became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the same year, an international airport opened just fifteen minutes away. To say that long-time residents of Bodh Gaya live on the exchange rate equivalent of a few dollars a day would be an overestimate, yet they operate restaurants, hotels, and rickshaws for religious pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. Yet my peers had debates—and were instructed to have debates—over whether 40 cents was “too much” for a rickshaw ride, for fear of inflating the local economy. The program was poverty tourism, plain and simple.


Healthcare was critical to the lifeblood of the program. If I knew how severely ill my peers and I would get, and on a regular basis at that, I might have thought twice about attending. After an 18-hour train ride from Delhi, program staff showed us to our rooms and introduced us to our buckets. I’ll spare you the details.


At the beginning of the program, there were 27 students. We were told to visit one local doctor for all our medical needs, and that this doctor had a long-standing relationship with the program. It is also worth noting that this doctor has a street named after him, and, similarly, this study abroad program is a fixture in the village: this program has taken place at the same site each year since 1979. We were under the impression that this doctor was the only reliable healthcare provider for us. “Reliable,” in this case, means one who neither practices homeopathic medicine nor one who has a reputation for misdiagnosing.


We then learned that this doctor was a sexual predator, that he had previously assaulted students on the program, and that the faculty director knowingly withheld this information from us. The program’s health advisors—several other professors and a TA, who were tasked with full oversight of students’ healthcare and well-being—also knew that this doctor was a predator. Yet we were all sent to see him, and many of us did. What’s more is that, from what I understand, the program director encouraged our health advisors not to disclose to students why we were not allowed to see this doctor alone. The people responsible for our safety put us in harm’s way. No one spoke up.


You should also know that we were in an information silo. In the spirit of refining our meditative practices, we were told not to bring our phones or laptops—not even while en route to orientation. I snuck my phone for emergencies and found that I was in the minority: most of my peers did not have a way to communicate with their families, save for the internet cafe a ten minute walk away.


While the information about the program’s only healthcare contact highlighted our collective unsafety on the program, tensions had already been brewing, and rightfully so. From the outset, women students—of which there were only nine––were concerned about their healthcare options and were not sure what to expect in Bodh Gaya, especially after a three-day orientation that seemed to impart alarming messages about gender and safety in India. The same orientation, which took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, largely neglected to address issues of race, imperialism and colonialism. Students of color on the program—of which there were only four—seemed to receive little to no attention at that orientation. Moreover, students with pre-existing mental health conditions, like me, were told to hide our conditions from local healthcare providers, simply because locals “wouldn’t understand.” What became apparent upon our arrival in Bodh Gaya was not that local culture was blameworthy: instead, the ignorance and neglect of the program’s leadership accounted for an absurdly unsafe living environment, especially for students from historically marginalized backgrounds.


After we learned about the doctor’s predatory history, we wanted answers and accountability, which the program faculty and staff did not provide. The tenor of life at the monastery, first characterized by twice-daily meditation sessions and twice-daily tea time, quickly became a warzone. The students banded together, holding locked-door meetings among ourselves in order to weigh our options. Who were we to trust at that point? What would our parents say if they knew? Would we get sent home and lose our tuition and credits?
We didn’t go to classes for a day to a day and a half because we were so overwhelmed, and faculty acted like we were the instigators in the situation. We told them that we didn’t trust them with our healthcare. For some reason, faculty and staff were entirely in charge of our healthcare, even though they were doctors of philosophy, not medicine. And they knew that.

We soon found ourselves even more left to our own devices. The point in sharing our distrust with them was to be transparent about how we were feeling about something pressing—not to be bratty college kids. Even so, we were accused of endangering our own welfare by not placing our trust in the faculty. I was one of six students who came down with a nasty parasite, requiring IV rehydration in a hospital that lacked antiseptics of any kind, and somehow that was our fault. “This is what happens when you don’t trust us!” one of my professors said, literally up in arms.


In mid-October, Carleton flew in a team of three administrators to assess the situation. The administrators held individual and small group interviews with students, faculty, and staff, and in addition to questions about my perspective on the situation, I was asked about my involvement with The Carletonian. While they found a new, better doctor, who wasn’t a predator, the new doctor wasn’t brand new to the area. This begs the question: was our program director really unable to coordinate a better doctor in advance, perhaps as a proactive step, rather than waiting idly for the same thing to happen again? Or did he just not try?


Five students left early, losing all course credits. One of those who left early noted that, as a survivor herself, the situation was triggering for her own trauma, and the program offered no counseling or formal support in this capacity. Two students of color––in this case, half the students of color on the program––left early, noting that they felt unsupported by the program faculty and community. Another student of color left before the program’s month-long independent study, leaving only one student of color enrolled by the end of the program. Those of us who stayed were obligated to make a degrading decision: what was our tolerance for indignity?


I kept wondering what my limit was. As a student who has already taken a medical leave of absence to address his mental health, everything seemed to be about getting my credits back on track. Distraught as they were, my parents kept checking in to make sure I was still set to complete the program. Being halfway around the world, I don’t even think my parents could process much more than the bare necessities: by the second half of the program, our phone calls were not about what I was learning, but instead a checklist: “Are you relapsing?” No. “And you’re staying, right?” Yes.


Staying on the program was not a personal victory, even though I’ve been told to frame it as such. Staying meant feeling powerless in the face of severe wrongdoing. Staying meant feeling frightened for my safety and aware of the utter incompetence of those employed to keep me safe.


At our peak vulnerability, the program director’s personal guru rocked the boat with his evening sermons, moving some of my peers to tears. The lines between the academic study of religion and the practice of religion were most obscured when attendance was made mandatory at a vow-taking ceremony. 18 of my peers took sacred vows, and I was one of four who did not. Vow-takers seemed to be mixed on the gravity of the event: some knew they wanted to convert, and others merely liked the moral content of the vows. One student noted that, after taking the vows, a professor said, “so how does it feel to be Buddhist?”


Surrounded by a can-you-handle-it culture at the monastery, I thought that simultaneous stomach and sinus infections might warrant the compassion and attention necessary to feel safe on this program. When I found myself shaking with the chills, and losing fluid until I could no longer see straight, I was almost relieved. What happened at the local emergency room, however, really seemed to epitomize my experience this fall—a situation I wasn’t sure how to otherwise articulate to people outside the bubble of hostility in which I was living. On a dirty hospital gurney, an aggressive male nurse held me down, forcibly stuck me with a needle that he picked up from a rusty tin, and proceeded to draw a syringe from a vile of liquid labeled in a unfamiliar alphabet, at which point, I yelled. I’ll never forget watching the nurse fill up that syringe.


As someone who takes medication that affects blood pressure, intravenous medication is no joke. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal, whatever that medication was. “Just go with it,” the professor with me at the hospital said. “India is like a Mr. Bean adventure sometimes.”


The ultimate irony of the program was the way in which the program gaslighted us into fear of the local culture, when really all we had to fear was the program itself. Above all, it was not Bodh Gaya, but our program director’s lack of preparedness and moral responsibility, that made this experience such a disaster.


While I am relieved that Off-Campus Studies is making some structural changes to the program, one glaring problem remains: that the same program director is set to lead the program this fall. Applications are open, and info sessions are on the horizon. This is what happens when stories don’t get out.

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