An Interview with Selena Quintanilla: Nepali Development and Social Change with SIT

Selena Quintanilla is a junior at Transylvania University who studied and did research abroad for a semester in Nepal through the SIT Development and Social Change Program.

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Tell me a bit about the program you went on in terms of academics.  What was different from your home institution?  What were some of your favorite subject to learn about? What is it like learning from a different worldview? 

The program I went on really emphasized experiential learning so our courses were mostly outside the classroom. We would attend lectures, go to a specific location, or have to interview people about a certain topic. The course then centered around Tibetan politics and religious change in Tibet so we received lectures from an international lawyer, His Holiness the Karmapa, Tibetan poets or activists, academics in Tibet’s history, or watched Tibetan performances. We were located in a district of Kathmandu where called Boudha, which had a very large Tibetan refugee population. It was also home to the largest stupa in Nepal but at the time it was undergoing reconstruction from earthquake damage. Overall, through experiential learning my perception of what it means to be a refugee was shattered and I became much more sympathetic to the situation of refugees and to the forgotten Tibet. The way we were able to engage with the real world outside of the classroom helped me learn to learn from people and to pay more attention to my surroundings. I was constantly learning and excited to learn about the world through interacting with it.

We did have one formal class, however. From Monday through Friday from 8am to about 1:30pm we had intensive Tibetan language classes. After a while I got better and could actually hold conversations with people, but the alphabet and the sounds were completely different. The way the words formed meaning were so interesting and it reflected so much about the culture. It is a beautiful language and though I don’t think I will do anything with the language in my future career, it is always rewarding for me to learn about people through their language.

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What was the student life like?  What was your living situation while abroad?   

I loved our school so much! It’s called the Yantra house. It was only for SIT students which usually has around 20-ish students each semester so it had a small library, low ceilings, and one large classroom. You could only walk barefoot in the small building and we sat on cushions during Tibetan class or lectures. It had a very organic feel, on nice days we had meetings with our professors outside and there was greenery and trees everywhere! There was tea, cookies, and fruit available in between every break. Simply put, I loved our little school.

We would get out of classes by 4 at the latest and we had curfew at 7 pm simply because it was culturally appropriate to be home early and there was not much street lighting so we would hang out around the stupa area or play futzol (mini soccer). Afterwards I would go home and spend time with my host family, who were Tibetan refugees so I could not only practice Tibetan but also learn their story. I had two sisters slightly older than me and we watched a lot of Hindi TV together or just chatted in the afternoon. Overall, I had a good relationship with my host family and I hope to go back and visit them again.

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With your SIT program there were built in excursions outside of your host city.  Did a particular location really impact you?  Any favorite memories from an excursion with SIT? 

Because of the Nepal earthquake we spent more time in India on our first excursion as a group. We went to Ladakh and Dharmsala. Ladakh was incredible and definitely very different from any other place I have ever been. The state was at a high altitude so walking took more energy and I was often out of breath, the sun was strong so it would get super hot and be very cold at night. One of my favorite memories was from that excursion when I got to teach a class at a school for boy monks. All of the boys were dressed in monk robes, which was very interesting to me. They stood up when I walked into the classroom put their palms together, bowed and in unison greeted me “Good Morning, ma’am!” After teaching them that day I really felt I could be great at teaching English. I never knew until that day it would be something I would be interested in pursuing. I also went to India for one month by myself as part of SIT’s research requirement. We were allowed to go virtually anywhere in Nepal or India and I chose the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India to look at the role of Jaipur’s history in developing the use of elephants in the tourism industry. Not only did I get to fulfill a lifelong dream of interacting with elephants, I also met amazing people from all over the world, I learned a little bit of Hindi, and I realized my previous fears of traveling alone were ridiculous and traveling alone is something I will continue to do in my future life. 

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Did you face any challenges while studying and doing research abroad?  Was it hard to learn how to get around your host city, learn the language, be on your own in an unfamiliar environment?  What advice would you give others who might face similar challenges while abroad?

Studying in Nepal and India was challenging mostly because of my change in lifestyle. There were things I appreciated like walking to the places I needed to get to or a less stressful and time-oriented way of life. However, the times I felt most homesick were when I felt serious discomfort in being in a bed that not only wasn’t my own but wasn’t very comfortable or when the bath water was not only rain water but also terribly cold. I never felt clean. I ate lentils, rice, and potatoes almost everyday, so the food was a little less varied. Finally, the bathrooms were honestly the hardest thing for me to get use to and I don’t think I ever did but it was not very sanitary, especially for women. There were a couple times when I felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable with my environment. I wanted so much to go home in those times but I remember telling myself that what I was living was truly an amazing experience. I didn’t have to convince myself because I knew it was the truth. Overall, my experience was more than I could have ever hoped for. I learned so much about myself, what I wanted to do in the future and lived an adventure I felt could only have been in movies. The times I felt really homesick were very few. I met incredible people and I constantly met new people. If someone would have told me how amazing it was going to be I would have stayed a year.

All photos are courtesy of Selena Quintanilla.


Courtney Smith is a senior at Transylvania University studying Psychology.  She participated in a Semester at Sea Program and the KIIS Poland Consortia program.