Student experiences spark Pune reevaluation

Students on the South Asian Civ study abroad program this year received information about how to deal with sexual harassment.

By Sindhu Gnanasambandan

After a summer article went viral detailing a UChicago student’s traumatic study abroad experience, administrators have faced mounting pressure to modify aspects of the program.

On August 18, fourth-year Michaela Cross recounted the sexual harassment she experienced in the South Asian Civilization study abroad program held in Pune, India, last fall, in an article on CNN iReport that received over a million views and a hundred thousand shares.

In light of this publicity, the Study Abroad Office said that they have made several changes to the 13-year-old program.

“The feedback we received was wide-ranging, representing diverse and sometimes divergent experiences,” Sarah Walter, study abroad director and associate dean for international education, wrote in an e-mail. “All of these perspectives have been given consideration, and in this case and all others, specific suggestions have directly impacted our program planning.”

Walter pointed to more intensive cultural sessions as one concrete change that has been instituted.

“A request for more dialogue about issues of cultural navigation and sexual harassment in India was the most consistent piece of feedback we received from last autumn’s Pune students, which is why we prioritized implementing a larger and more robust training session last spring,” Walter wrote.

The sessions included information on how to dress appropriately and to respect customs of modesty, according to third-year Chelsea Hanlock, who is currently studying abroad in Pune.

“We spoke about the attention that I would receive as a white woman and the ways to respond to deter more unwanted attention. We talked about how to respond in the event of unwanted touching or an assault and action to take after the fact. The information was relatively helpful,” she said.

Nonetheless, Hanlock has encountered rumors of a reluctance to change the program.

“Our program assistant mentioned that the program heads were hesitant to change the program because in the years since the program has been in Pune, there haven’t really been reactions and situations that were experienced by the students last year,” she said.

Cross and other 2012 participants feel that their efforts to engage with the administration in affecting change have largely been rebuffed and that the University is leaving them out of the decision making process.

“This is the pattern: I reach out, I make meetings with people and people just never follow up on them. They seem sympathetic in person but no follow up so I don’t know if people are intending to make these changes. It’s also backdoor. It’s also informal. So if someone doesn’t email me back, they are allowed to do that,” Cross said.

Fourth-year Caitlin Grey said she asked Elana Kranz, assistant dean of international education, to inform her of any student committees forming to modify the Pune program and never received a reply.

“I can literally think of the exact logistical things they could do to form that, but she just never got back to me. She just took my comments and really just put them under the rug,” Grey said.

According to Walter, Study Abroad gives out comprehensive program evaluations, and students are free to meet with staff for more in-depth debriefings.

Walter noted that the study abroad office has taken some suggestions into account, such as Grey’s recommendation of adding a 10-minute section to the training that would acknowledge the role males might have to play in warding off sexual harassment.

“Because of the feedback from last year’s students, we were mindful about addressing the role of the male students in these situations. The men were given specific examples of responses that are helpful, and what reactions can be seen as legitimizing negative attention,” Walter said.

According to Hanlock, this year’s program also includes a weekly informal meeting to discuss culture shock, level of comfort, and other issues students may have.

Reflecting on her experience thus far, she said: “Local people here, men and women, tend to stare, but I don’t get the feeling it is of a sexual nature. A lot of it seems to be because my whiteness is a novelty here…. I myself have taken pictures of locals, so a lot of the curiosity and staring is reciprocal.”

Cross said she specifically asked for more mental health resources for the Pune program, such as an on-site therapist. According to Walter, the University does provide access to a network of English-speaking health experts, but Grey felt that the lack of an R.A. trained in sexual harassment response shows the lack of planning that went into the program.

“I don’t think this is the people on the trip’s fault. I really think this is the administration’s fault and the fault of the study abroad office, if not to initially have a program that acknowledges these things but to follow-up and listen to the concerns of students and…respond to that in a way that at least makes us feel like we are being listened to,” she said.