Mary Wojcicki is a third-year undergraduate student pursuing an Honours BA in Human Rights and Equity Studies at York University. Wojcicki is from Nashville, Tennessee and says that she feels that she has found a second home in Toronto. Her academic interests include South Asian studies, education rights and anti-colonialism.
Wojcicki is currently in India as an exchange student in FLAME University in Pune, India, a vibrant city 170 km south of Mumbai. “As an international student from the US, the decision to go on exchange to India was a considerable one; however, FLAME continues to challenge and broaden my understanding of issues related to human rights and equity beyond the American or Canadian contexts. Like York, FLAME is clearly committed to critical engagement with the liberal arts as well as to social justice. In fact, one of FLAME’s guiding principles is respect for human dignity, which is something that I feel resonates across cultures,” says Wojcicki.
Considered a pioneer in interdisciplinary liberal arts education in India, FLAME and York University established a partnership for academic exchange in 2016. Ten students from FLAME have come to York as exchange students since the partnership began in 2016. Two York students are currently at FLAME.
“Studying at York was a fabulous experience, truly exemplifying how a semester abroad can change one’s perspective on numerous things,” says Padmapriya Eunny who spent the winter semester of 2018 at York University. Eunny found that the pedagogy at York very different from FLAME; classes at York were much larger and there was greater emphasis on self-directed learning. Students were required to “take responsibility to grasp and think about the material themselves, instead of relying solely on the professor … putting oneself out there and getting out of one’s comfort zone is one of the most educational experiences a student would have. I truly believe every student must consider an opportunity like this,” she says.
Harshada Balasubramanian, a FLAME student who also spent the winter semester of 2018 at York recalls her initial reaction when she landed in Toronto. “What have I signed up for!?” That was my first thought when I landed in Toronto in the first week of January 2018. Little did I know that it would be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Having studied in a small university, the shift to the third largest university in Canada was more than I had anticipated it to be. The campus was huge. At times, I used ‘maps’ to navigate to my classes,” she recollects. However, Balasubramanian enthusiastically recommends the exchange experience. “Anybody that believes in a holistic learning experience should go on an exchange program. The cultural, political and academic immersion was beyond what I expected, what I imagined. It was truly phenomenal!”
York student Ziyi Li who is currently at FLAME also concurs that while the experience is not without challenges, it is contributing to his intellectual and personal growth. He finds the pace of study there quite intensive. “I have lots of assignments and readings to do. My peers are hard-working students. I am adjusting to this pace of study,” says Li, who is pursuing an International BA (iBA) in Humanities. He says that he is thrilled by the variety of cultural experiences he is able to have through various field trips and excursions.
One key feature of FLAME’s curriculum is their Discover India program – an intensive research and experiential learning program for undergraduate students to explore and understand aspects of society and culture in India through fieldwork supervised by FLAME faculty. The program seeks to develop a critical approach to the study of culture and history as well as teach students how to formulate projects and develop written and visual documentation.
Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, outgoing dean of LA&PS, led the establishment of this partnership and sees it as a great opportunity. She says she is grateful to FLAME Professor Viraj Shah for her support to the partnership.
“I am keen to see our students explore India as scholars and researchers, side by side their peers in India, rather than as a visitor or a tourist. I would like more York University students take full advantage of the opportunities FLAME offers. Just like LA&PS, it has programs in professional fields as well as in the liberal arts. Students from many of York’s programs in multiple Faculties can find courses to fulfil their requirements. I have created a ‘Semester-in-India Award’ to support students financially for their study term at FLAME, which will be launched this fall. Our goal is to create more such exchange opportunities through partnerships,” she says.
Mukherjee-Reed visited FLAME in 2017. She was immediately impressed by the campus and her interactions with FLAME faculty, leadership and students. She notes that in these interactions she was inspired by their commitment to innovate, to defy boundaries and to have an impact on society.
“The importance of exposure to multiple perspectives and cultural experiences to operate successfully in this world cannot be overstated. As a global school deeply aware of its Indian roots, building partnerships with like-minded institutions from across the world is imperative to encourage cross-pollination of ideas and promote understanding. Our partnership with York University has been extremely beneficial to our students,” says Santosh Kudtarkar, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Education at FLAME. Kudratkar also hopes that given the advantage of location and infrastructure, FLAME can function as a base for York scholars from where they can carry forth their India-related teaching and research.
Mukherjee-Reed sees this partnership as one step towards a much larger goal. “When I became dean, one of my goals was to establish partnerships with liberal arts institutions beyond North America. All of Asia, including India and China, have seen a tremendous interest in the liberal arts (and liberal education more generally) in recent times.
“I believe York has a strong potential to lead a re-thinking of liberal education which is global in perspective and not tethered to a few philosophical perspectives … This partnership comes at a time when there is a global recognition of the value of interdisciplinary liberal education and the breadth of thought that comes with it. Most importantly, we all recognize the need to strengthen our democracies everywhere. This is a goal that universities must come together and fight for,” says Mukherjee-Reed.