Queen’s boasts an impressive array of countries in its list of exchange programs. The 54 destinations range from more conventional choices, like Scotland and France, to newer programs, like the Ontario-Maharashtra-Goa exchange to India. This past winter, I travelled to the University of Pune in western India with this program.
I left in January, shortly after the now infamous Delhi gang rape. My parents, needless to say, were concerned about my well-being. The partnership with the University of Pune is a relatively new one, and declaring myself an exchange student in the office at Pune was met by a confused shuffling of papers and an array of small fees, while my presence in the classroom was often met with puzzled stares.
The attempt to create a partnership with a university, unaccustomed to exchange students from any school so many miles away, not least from the new affiliate, Queen’s, can’t be easy. I find the endeavour praiseworthy and rewarding.
The Off-Campus Activity Safety Policy (OCASP) that Queen’s requires students to complete online before their departure outlined the risks involved in living in India and helped me feel more secure by registering me with the Emergency Support program. This program gathers the information necessary to identify who is at risk and how they can be reached. The policy has been updated, and is now called OCASP 2.0. It now displays clarifying and supporting documentation, such as a summary sheet of responsibilities for the benefit of the students.
My family’s apprehension caused me to pay special attention to the preparation Queen’s gives to outgoing exchange students to countries the program classifies as a “high risk” place to travel.
According to the policy, “high-risk” countries are those where the “off-campus activity has the potential to expose participants to hazards that are significantly greater than those likely to be encountered in their everyday lives.” My parents wondered whether the safety of students might be compromised by the search for new partner universities in areas of the world where the risk factor is higher. They worried that Queen’s might risk students’ safety by incorporating new partnerships in places without fully assessing the risks such an exchange may pose.
I find these questions, when asked with the intent to maintain dialogue between schools across the world, helpful to ponder in order to create useful orientations and interactive programs like OCASP. The program asks students to research the risks involved in travelling to the location specific to their exchange and to react to an array of fictional incidents with which they are presented. It allows students to classify for themselves whether the activity they will participate in might be labeled an “unmanageable risk,” such as travelling to war zones, areas with high medical risks or high risk of natural disasters.
Before this personal assessment is accepted and the exchange is allowed to proceed, the full approval of the International Programs Office is required. At times, the line that separates “high” from “unmanageable” risk seems unclear as the world is, so often, an unknowable and unpredictable place.
While I was in India, a bombing occurred at a temple the day after I had visited it, a terrible flood swept through the north, destroying the hostel in Rishikesh I had recently visited, and, on my third day in Srinagar, shootings took place on the road that leads to the airport. All of these events could individually be classified as unmanageable risks, yet such risks cannot prevent the innumerable rewarding moments I experienced during my time at the University.
Throughout my stay in Pune, I felt as safe as I would feel in any city. If anything, I felt that my alertness bordered on paranoia when I first arrived. The warnings of friends and family to be especially careful as a woman and the tutoring given me by OCASP echoed rather painfully in my head. Warnings to avoid crowds made my heart pump wildly when confronted by the crush of people in Mumbai or hurry rather unnecessarily at dusk, only a block from my house near the fruit stand run by a friendly family.
The program helps prepare students for the journey and experience of living in a foreign country with practical advice to make copies of passports and visas, yet nothing could have prepared me to cross a chaotic street or navigate the bureaucracy of the dreaded Foreign Registration Office in Pune.
The struggles I faced were often unexpected in their mundane nature, requiring mostly patience and a level head. The pre-departure programs Queen’s offers prepared me to be alert and aware, but the most rewarding part of my time in India was learning to relax in a place so utterly different from my home.
It's good to question the efficacy of Queen’s exchange system; yet, if the goal of this discussion is to reduce the number of affiliations between Queen’s and other foreign universities, this interrogation loses all value. The opportunity to travel to a wide array of places, despite the risks, is a precious one.
I am grateful that Queen’s offers us this opportunity and supports us along the way, entrusting us to be level-headed and to explore the world as its ambassadors. I feel confident that leaving our zones of familiarity, boundaries and biases that propagate and construct harmful imaginings can begin to shake apart. Our dislocation from home is risky, yet is vital to deconstructing our personal biases and allowing us to develop a critical and reflexive eye as we move through our surroundings.
Near the end of my stay, I found I could more easily separate real from imagined dangers allowing certain hardened presumptions about gazes directed my way to loosen their destructive hold. Having returned in one piece, with only a few parasites along for the ride, I now see the potential dangers of exchange as an inevitable and essential part of navigating any journey into the unknown.