Shalem College
November 11, 2018

Reading, Writing, and Rickshaws: Shalem Freshmen Head to India for Unique English Immersion Program

Watch and learn about the Shalem English Immersion Program at Jindal University.

Most immersion programs expect students to communicate solely in the language of study, requiring them to speak, learn, and live in a foreign tongue until it becomes familiar.

But how many such programs include rickshaw rides?

Shalem’s English Immersion Program at Jindal University near New Dehli was almost certainly an exception in this regard. And to the 33 rising sophomores who participated in the program this past July, an exception that made all the difference. “The students’ fascination with Indian society and their drive to learn English complemented each other perfectly,” explained Annie Kantar Ben-Hillel, Shalem’s director of English studies. “Their minds were open and their senses heightened, and their willingness to speak English increased dramatically as a result.”

This was precisely what Dr. Naama Shalom, one of the driving forces behind the unique immersion program, was counting on. Shalom, an Oxford-trained scholar of ancient Indian philosophy who teaches Eastern thought at Shalem, knows firsthand the allure of India’s rich culture: In 2014, she was tapped as a member of the founding academic team of the School of Liberal Arts and Humanities at Jindal University. The school, the only one of its kind in India, was established to train a cohort of citizens for meaningful democratic participation against the backdrop of an almost exclusively technical and vocational educational system.

Sound familiar?

Shalem students visit the Taj Mahal during their English Immersion Program at Jindal University this past July.

“Shalem wants to ensure that its students can communicate on an international stage, a prerequisite for going out into the world and making a difference. I felt that by bringing our students to a superb liberal arts college in India, we could both ratchet up their English level and give them real-world experience in navigating cultural differences. And when it comes to Israel and India—India and just about anywhere, in fact—there are many,” smiles Shalom.

Having met many of Jindal’s humanities lecturers during her time there, Shalom knew that they were superb teachers. Yet according to Shalem’s students, it was the combination of quality of teaching and the content of the courses itself that made the experience so effective. “I’m convinced that it’s impossible not to be fully engaged in a course on Bollywood films,” laughs Yehudit Rosenfeld ’21, who noted that she also took courses on Indian politics, Western philosophy, literature, and music, all of which “were on par with the courses I’ve taken at Shalem. Which is to say, rigorous.”

For Yishai Ben-Tzion ’21, the most interesting part of the curriculum were the electives, which included a course on the Indian constitution. “It was particularly interesting for me as an Israeli, since India is another young country, still forging its independence,” Ben-Tzion explained. “Yet while we in Israel lack a constitution, India is using one to address issues of national identity similar to ours. It was definitely thought-provoking.”

Of course, it would be misleading to imply that the students weren’t somewhat distracted by their surroundings—and deliberately so. To Shalom, the distraction was an advantage: “We encouraged students to explore Indian culture ‘from within,’ whether through their intense schedule of field trips after class or through conversations with their Indian peers in the Jindal student lounge. The goal was for students not only to notice the ways in which Indian society diverges from our own, but also to recognize the points of connection, the things we share in common. In this way, they can be a part of the effort to build diplomatic bridges,” she emphasized.

Indeed, diplomacy featured prominently—and literally—on the program’s agenda: Along with a visit to a well-known Sikh temple and the obligatory tour of the Taj Mahal, students visited the capital’s Central Secretariat, home to the government’s most important ministries of the cabinet of India. They also met with the Israeli ambassador to India, who encouraged students to keep studying their own tradition, read widely, and ask questions, since Israel needs broad-minded, critical thinkers securing its interests. As one student put it, it was “a call to action and a reminder of why I’m at Shalem at one and the same time.”