This year's group of students - 19 in all, from six of our consortium colleges (Bates, Holy Cross, Colby, Grinnell, Whitman and Bowdoin) - came into the ISLE Program with great curiousity and anticipation. Application essays revealed a particular interest in the challenges of traveling and living in unfamiliar terrain: "It's important to be able to leave behind what I take for granted in our culture..." "I appreciate the value of total immersion as a means to a real understanding of other cultures..." "I am not looking for a typical program, and I'm not looking to travel to a place where I will immediate 'fit right in' ..."
ISLE is far from a typical study abroad program, and every year students learn much, much more from the experience than they ever expected. This year's group is sure to be no exception.
"Sri Lanka is now a part of me and I know I'll have a life-long connection and affection for this country."
-- 2005 ISLE student
Students participating in the ISLE Program are taken through a number of steps leading up to the August departure, focusing both on academics and on the cultural experience. Program preparations commence several months before the actual travel to Sri Lanka, and began this year with acceptance letters from 2006 Faculty Director Professor Katie Ryor of Carleton College, one of our consortion colleges. Early in the year, program assistants Flynn Jebb (Holy Cross, ISLE student in 2004) and Philip Friedrich (Bowdoin, ISLE student in 2004) were appointed.
Professor Ryor is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Carleton College. Professor Ryor's areas of teaching include Buddhist and East Asian art history, and her research has concentrated on Chinese painting, garden practices and art patronage during the late Imperial period.
PRE-PROGRAM READING AND PREPARATION
ISLE Administrative Director Sree Padma Holt set up a Listserve email group for the students, and sent out the pre-orientation readings before students left their campuses. The students are strongly encouraged to do the reading and the Sinhala alphabet studies before departure. This year ISLE also employed the use of a web-site tool called Blackboard, where students were directed to a Discussion Board to post questions and concerns. They also found helpful information and forms to assist in their preparation for the program, as well as course syllabi and instructor CVs for the curriculum.
Books read by the students include: When Memory Dies, by A. Sivanandan (Arcadia Books), a rich novel which takes the reader through three generations of a Sri Lankan family. This is a deeply involving story, enabling students to begin to understand the colonial history and the ethnic conflict that colors Sri Lanka. Another book they received before departure is the Insight Guide to Sri Lanka, a wonderfully detailed guidebook.
"I had a few questions about dress and luggage... How long do shirt sleeves need to be? And skirts?" "Do we need mosquito nets?"
-- Discussion Board
The administrator's office also sees that all students receive important information early on about health, passports, travel, and visa concerns, along with a student handbook (see below). Participants are advised, and assisted, through the process of medical preparations, including getting the appropriate vaccinations before departure.
Sree Padma hosted two pre-orientation gatherings at Bowdoin early in April and May, inviting ISLE students from the New England area to attend. Generally at this time of year, students are busy with finals and graduation, but several students reserved time for this very important session. Returning students gave presentations on various aspects of the program, and new students were informed of any changes being introduced into the 2006 Program. Sree Padma later posted notes from these sessions on the Blackboard web site for the benefit of the rest of the group.
PREPARATION FOR THE DIRECTOR AND ASSISTANTS
Faculty Director Katie Ryor and assistants Flynn and Philip attended a weekend of orientation at Bowdoin in June. Sree Padma Holt spends this time going over program details and procedures with the director and assistants, and discussing all facets of the program.
Assistants Flynn and Philip brought insight from their own experiences in the ISLE Program to the pre-orientation discussions. Each year, the returning assistants not only experience the program from a different angle, but use their own unique understandings of the challenges of the program to assist the new students in a smooth transition in Sri Lanka. The orientation sessions also allow them to clarify policies and issues that are crucial to the operation of the program, and to get guidance on situations that may crop up, both in terms of assisting the director and faculty and in helping students manage the many challenges of the program.
Professor Ryor traveled to Sri Lanka in July with Sree Padma to meet with ISLE Center staff and faculty. They met with University Vice Chancellor Kapila Goonasekera, Dean Ranjith Amarasinghe, and the De Silvas -- the homestay coordinators -- among others, to reconfirm the arrangements that were made earlier in the year. This trip offered a critical opportunity for Professor Ryor to tend to issues that would pave the way for the students' arrival later.
"Sinhala class begins the second day you are on the island, so you need to do your best to be ready to hit the ground running."
-- ISLE Handbook
The students' ISLE Handbook, covering topics such as preparing for the long flight, health and safety tips, how to have a successful "homestay" experience, and more, is indispensible. Students are urged to read this before departure, and to bring it along for reference. The handbook is quite informative about making the transition and adjustment to Sri Lankan culture, classroom, living conditions, and societal expectations.
SHARING THE EXPERIENCE
With regular dispatches from Sri Lanka, we will provide photos and reports pertaining to this year’s program. We hope family and friends of the participants enjoy it and that prospective students find it useful.