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Taking education to a higher plain: Middlebury students head to India

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Himalayans.jpg
HIMALAYAN PEAKS LOOM above the landscape of Northern India, where two Middlebury teenagers studied the native culture of Ladakh. Photo by Angus Barstow

By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Angus Barstow was in need of a haircut. But for the Middlebury youth, a haircut was easier said than done.

He, along with fellow Middlebury Union High School senior Eli Cohen and 10 other Vermont students, was traveling high in the Himalayas of Northern India, into a region called Ladakh wedged between China and Pakistan.

Cohen and Barstow journeyed to northern India this spring with Vermont Intercultural Semesters (VIS), where they studied Ladakhi culture and environmental science and sustainability in the remote mountain region. The cultural immersion program has brought Vermont students to Ladakh every year since 2005.

The matter of the haircut came to a head early in the trip, when Barstow and the other students stayed overnight at a Buddhist monastery. One of the monks heard about Barstow’s grooming mission and made the young man an offer he couldn’t refuse: Come to my room at 9 a.m. the next morning, the monk said, and I’ll cut your hair.

In a presentation at the Ilsley Public Library last Thursday night, Barstow pointed to a photograph projected on a large screen. There, on the steps of the monastery, stood a gaggle of other Vermonters, a handful of red-garbed Buddhist monks and Barstow, his usual shock of red hair completely shaved.

“It was pretty bad,” he admitted. “The next morning a few of the monks came up to me and asked, ‘Are you staying here?’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s just a haircut.’”

As it turned out, for Barstow and Cohen, an unusual haircut bestowed by a Buddhist monk was just the first of many diverse cultural experiences they encountered while studying and traveling in Ladakh.

They have been longtime soccer teammates on the MUHS team, but applied to the VIS program independently of one another.

In fact, the two said, they didn’t realize they were both headed to Ladakh on the same trip until pre-season soccer practices rolled around last fall. They joined 10 other Vermont high school students, two teachers, and an intern earlier this spring, and together set off for a three-and-a-half-month trip to India.

The Vermont students were stationed at a dormitory for 40 Ladakhi students at the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, or SECMOL, a group founded in 1988 by a group of young Ladakhis looking to reform the education system in their region.

Now, around 40 Ladakhi students live at the completely “off-the-grid” facility, where bathroom facilities are made up of composting toilets and students rely on passive solar power to heat their dormitories. The organization is a leader in Ladakh in the use of sustainable, alternative energies, and the campus, which sits a few miles outside the capital city of Leh, is entirely run by students.

For the Vermont students, VIS makes for an academically rigorous semester, with a focus on place-based learning that VIS founder Curtis Koren first admired in the Mountain School in Vershire, Vt. VIS students study traditional and contemporary Ladakhi culture, making trips to monasteries, and interview local residents for an English class with a focus in journalism. They also study the Ladakhi approach to alternative technologies, with fieldtrips to artificial glaciers and solar energy facilities.

The program is accredited through the Sharon Academy, in Sharon, Vt., and costs $8,750 per semester. Vermont students who live in town not served by a public high school are able to apply their public school funding to the program. Koren is aggressively pursuing avenues for more public funding.

For Koren, the program is a way to invigorate smart students who need a change of pace from a traditional high school environment.

“I met so many kids in their junior and senior year who had finished everything, and they were spinning their wheels,” she said.

Plus, she said, the VIS program introduces Vermont students — some who have never traveled out of the state — to a completely different way of life. The program also strives to build what Koren called a “mutually beneficial” partnership with the SECMOL students, who can practice their English and learn about America from the Vermont students.

For Barstow and Cohen, the semester culminated in intensive independent study projects. Barstow chose to study Ladakhi and Tibetan cuisine. For several days he stayed with a Ladakhi woman and her old mother, and though the two spoke no English he learned what he could in the kitchen with simple gestures, nods and smiles. He also studied with a chef at a restaurant in Leh.

Cohen — an avid musician — tracked down a teacher to instruct him in the damyang, a traditional Ladakhi guitar. The instrument came to the region about 500 years ago with nomadic tribes, and most masters of the instrument are self-taught.

The deal was this: Cohen would teach his instructor how to play a song on the Western guitar — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” as it turned out — and the Ladakhi musician in turn would teach Cohen a few songs on the damyang.
The trip had its downsides, of course — one being the food in the SECMOL dormitories, which Cohen said became monotonous week after week.

There were also a fair number of physical hardships to overcome. SECMOL is located at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet above sea level — in comparison, the Mt. Abraham summit is just 4,000 feet above sea level. That staggering altitude meant students dealt with dehydration and altitude sickness.

But the hardest part of the semester, Cohen and Barstow agreed, only rolled around when it was time for the students to return to Vermont. Now, Cohen is pouring over course catalogues in Asian Studies at Skidmore College, where he will be a freshman next year, and Barstow and Cohen both are plotting their return trips to the mountainous region and the people they met there.

“I’m definitely going back,” said Barstow.

For more information about VIS, visit www.vermontis.org.

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