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UA, Indian students learn to lead during exchange program through teachings of Gandhi, King

Earlier this year, 10 students from The University of Alabama and Alabama A&M traveled to India to learn about Mahatma Gandhi and ways to further improve their leadership abilities as part of the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative.

Throughout the exchange, participants study the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as messages of peaceful, nonviolent conflict resolution to improve their preparedness to serve and influence others.

“I had several students who said to me, ‘This whole experience changed me for life. This changed my life, my life view,’” said Dr. Joy Burnham, director of the Office of International Programs and professor of counselor education in the College of Education. “Just to be able to travel internationally was a new avenue for some, and it opened their eyes.”

The Ghandi-King program unites young civic leaders – 10 from the U.S. and 10 from India – with a goal to “advance civil rights, social justice, and inclusion on the local, national and international levels,” according to a release from the Department of State.

“It’s about equity. It’s about social justice,” Dr. Burnham said. “It’s about understanding civil rights, (and) it’s about training young people that are civic-minded how to be leaders in the future.”

The University of Alabama was chosen to take part in the inaugural exchange after competing both internally and across other universities for the grant. The infusion of subjects such as social studies, art, and counseling in the University’s proposal helped make it the proposal of choice, but another likely benefit was the campus’ proximity to historic sites related to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Burnham said.

“This is not only grant funding but allows us to grow the global footprint of the College, so that was double exciting,” Dr. Burnham said, adding that the College received support from across campus. “I was thrilled to work with such an exciting group of people – Liza Wilson, Lisa Matherson, Sylvia Hollins, Kyle Holland.”

As funding continues, UA will hold the noncompetitive grant for a total of three years.

J. Wilson Pate, currently a substitute teacher in the Tuscaloosa City School System while looking for a certified teaching position, was a senior studying secondary education in social science with a minor in communication studies when he was in the initiative. Pate and a roommate had the opportunity to implement some of the peaceful conflict resolution tactics they discuss in the program to resolve a situation during one of the exchange trips.

“We worked through our issues and shared a deeper connection with one another because of the method we used,” he said. “I also witnessed these methods in action during a group disagreement at the Gandhi Darshan in Delhi. It was evidence to me of the potency of nonviolence.”

Pate said the Gandhi-King program also revealed some of his own shortcomings as his body began to feel the effects of the long journey while on a connecting flight to Delhi.

“… I realized that I am not in charge, and that that’s okay,” Pate said. “Nonviolence is a method for conflict resolution, yes, but to really subscribe to it, you have to trust that something outside of

yourself is moving narratives too slowly for you to witness. Dr. King called it the ‘Moral Arc of the Universe,’ and he believed that it ‘bent towards justice.’ Committing yourself to a profound cause requires this kind of trust, as without it suffering and pain become loss. The most fundamental truth in the world acknowledges suffering and pain as a catalyst for change.”

In January, students arrived in New Delhi, India, and over the course of the academic trip visited the Taj Mahal, the Kalamkhush Handmade Paper Centre, Gujarat Vidyapith, a university that was established by Gandhi, as well as museums and other historic locations that tie back to the leader – including walking the path he took to where he was assassinated.

“You can actually walk his footprints,” Dr. Burnham said. “You can’t help but feel something in the air and the culture of that.”

They also had a monumental chance to meet Gandhi’s granddaughter Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee.

“It was a beautiful experience. It was almost magical to see the participants go from not knowing each other to literally caring deeply for each other, I would say loving each other,” Dr. Burnham said. “The hellos in January were wonderful; the goodbyes were quite sad because the participants and the staff had been together for four weeks.”

Pate said he still maintains relationships built over the course of the program. In fact, he and some fellow members hope to bring a seminar they’ve collaborated on to local schools.

“We agreed that the global community owes a holistic curriculum of moral formation aimed towards young people,” he said. “Nonviolence is a natural, method-based introduction to that education. We are currently developing a cross-cultural workshop for local schools to introduce middle and high school students to the method and message of nonviolence, as developed and followed by Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. King.”

The first part of the exchange took place last summer with a one-week virtual orientation followed by two-week, in-person residencies at UA and Alabama A&M in Huntsville. During these residencies, the Alabama students and those here from India joined classroom discussions and took trips to historic civil rights locations in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Atlanta, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn.

Participants had the opportunity to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and visit iconic locations, such as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which included a view of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“Those opportunities hopefully helped to cement what (the students) had heard about, seen about, read about, and walked through,” said Dr. Burnham of the experiences at each landmark, both in the U.S. and in India.

The Ghandi-King initiative was first proposed in the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative Act, which was introduced in 2017 and championed by the late Rep. John Lewis. In 2020, Congress authorized the bill, allowing multi-million-dollar funding for the U.S. Department of State to launch the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative program in partnership with the government of India.

“It’s taught us a lot about believing in this grant, believing in the idea that we can take 20 people who don’t know each other and bring them together, train them, and make sure that they understand how important it is to give back as leaders of the future,” Dr. Burnham said. “I expect really big things out of them. It makes you believe in education. It makes you believe in what we do, and, certainly, it makes you believe in giving back, (and) the mission: training leaders.”

Pate said he would encourage others to get involved with the initiative. Whether it’s someone on a quest to make a difference on a global scale, anyone “feeling tossed by the waves and unsure of how to verbalize or process (their) life experience and questions” like he was at the time, or someone who’s at a place in between – “this program is a great next step for anyone looking to engage with the ideas of peace and nonviolence,” he said.

The 20 exchange students will soon have a chance to give back to their communities by participating in post-program projects.

“We gave them a lot (through the program), so we expect them to give back as leaders,” Dr. Burnham said.

Some of her favorite parts of the exchange experience, she said, included hearing students discuss material they covered in the classroom and watching them step out and become leaders in the moment.

“We learned a lot, and it’s just a really special grant,” Dr. Burnham said. “I think there’s a lot of passion, energy, and belief in the mission of the grant on our part, and that was underlined throughout how important this is and how we believe we’re really training good leaders of the future.”