New study abroad experience in Nepal like homecoming for Auburn’s Elliott

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Twelve students from Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences wrapped up final exams and flew to Nepal as part of a new experiential study abroad trip.

The college’s first experience to the South Asia country will last 10 weeks — long enough to become immersed in the culture — and focus on sustainable tourism and community development.

One of the most valuable experiences students are likely to have is working and learning in some of the villages that were hardest hit by an earthquake that devastated the country just three years ago. Students will see how far Nepal has come — and how far it has to go.

Leading the group is Associate Professor Baker Ayoun, who previously led a study abroad program to his native Jordan. His passion is study abroad experiences that get students outside their comfort zones to fully experience a different culture.

Megan Elliott, coordinator of study abroad programs for the College of Human Sciences, knows what it’s like to be immersed in the Nepalese culture. Not only has she been to Nepal; she lived there for two years.

“I warned my students I may burst into tears when we land,” she said. “It was only two years. But it was so impactful for me.”

Elliott and her family’s time in Nepal took “experiential” travel to a new level. They learned what it’s like to have a family with young children far away from home.

She and her husband knew their oldest, Titus, would be making the trip. The dynamic changed — quite dramatically — when they discovered she was pregnant again two months before the trip. Jude, now 8, was born in Nepal.

Despite the challenges, Elliott treasures her family’s time in Nepal.

“It was a lot of things. I loved it, but it was hard having small children in a culture you don’t understand. It definitely brought a whole lot of challenges,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the dynamic is like having older children along for the ride.”

One challenge the students who just began their time in Nepal will face is culture shock. Elliott said the tendency is to judge when visitors feel anxiety about a new place.

“One of the biggest takeaways from our training we went through before we left for Nepal is that we have a tendency to view different as bad,” Elliott said. “Different isn’t always bad. It’s just different.”

Elliott is a veteran of international experiences. In 2005, she spent three months in Australia and then three months in Egypt with Youth With a Mission.

She and her family moved to Nepal in 2009, working with a missions organization that ran a mentoring program. The goal was to learn what it’s like to live overseas and train under veteran missionaries.

Part of the process, she said, is adapting to the culture.

“It is such a whirlwind moving to a different culture,” Elliott explained. “There is so much excitement, but so much uncertainty as well. Just learning how to find groceries, tell someone what you want at the store or market, and then how to cook those groceries is just one small but vital step in adapting and learning a new culture.”

The team she served with worked with Christians in Nepal. Since the illiteracy rate is high and more than 100 languages are spoken, the Nepali team members turned the Bible into 40 stories that could be told in villages no matter the illiteracy rate.

The highlight of her time in Nepal was working in a Bhutanese refugee camp in south Nepal. Nepalese had migrated to Bhutan, but were driven out. India denied them entry, and their native Nepal wouldn’t take them back. They had nowhere to go.

The United Nations set up refugee campus, and Elliott was part of a team that taught refugees about Western culture. Their lessons included everything from how to use a Western toilet to preparing for job interviews.

“They were people with no nation,” she explained. “It was incredible. They were so eager to learn. They were so excited. They wanted to become Americans or Australians, or whatever country they were being sent to, but they also were nervous. They had no idea what to expect. We tried to help ease those fears.”

Elliott said the trip had a profound impact on her family. She hopes it does the same for the Auburn students there now.

“I think they will get a broader view of what’s going on in the world,” she said. “I want them to come away thinking we can always help, but we have to be able to empower the local people. And I want them to get a taste of what it’s like to live in a foreign country.”

For Elliott, the experience is likely to be more personal.

“I’m really emotional. It’s pretty overwhelming, but I’m also really excited,” she said. “It feels like a homecoming.”

While only 10 percent of college students nationwide benefit from international study, 33 percent of Human Sciences students at Auburn participate in study abroad.

“The goal is to have 50 percent of our graduating seniors with study abroad experience,” Elliott said.


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