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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Stepping outside the classroom

Halfway around the world, a family of strangers can impact the life of a Western student, by accepting them into their home through a Bellingham nonprofit.

The Institute for Village Studies offers Western students the chance to integrate into village communities across the world.

Students can travel to the Himalayas, Thailand, Kenya, Bali, India and Nepal, depending on the season.

The programs offered by the Institute for Village Studies allow students and volunteers a chance to immerse themselves and interact within a community.

“If you do end up having the opportunity to go abroad. I think bringing [a] huge dose of humility with you is one of the most important things I could try to emphasize.”

Charlie Ashbaugh, director of the Institute for Village Studies

“We work with village communities around the world in achieving their vision of a better future,” Charlie Ashbaugh, the director of the Institute for Village Studies, said.

The goals of the program shift based on the theme of the trip, which vary depending on the destination. Themes include global health, indigenous rights, climate change, water resources and sustainability.

One of the most important aspects of the program is its engagement in community-driven developments on a local level, Ashbaugh said.

“We don’t want to be a burden or force our way in for the benefit of our own experience,” Ashbaugh said. “[It’s] really important to us that we’re not coming up with solutions in Bellingham and going over and implementing [them].”

Serena Cueva, a senior environmental education and geography major, went to the Indian Himalayas for six weeks with the program. She had always wanted to travel to the Himalayas and the institute provided her with the opportunity. Though university credits are offered, Cueva found her biggest take away was the experience itself.

“I was eager to try something that seemed out of my comfort zone,” Cueva said.

For three weeks of the trip, Cueva took part in a homestay, living with a local family. Despite a language barrier, she was able to integrate, learn from and communicate with her hosts. Cueva said there was a sense of peace and a general ease within the community.

Institute for Village Studies students teach creative art in Thailand. // Photo courtesy of Montanna Binder

“The difference in the pace of life was the biggest takeaway for me,” Cueva said. “I felt like I had to time to be a person.”

While living abroad, Cueva said she came to appreciate some of the privileges taken for granted in the United States.

“We didn’t really shower while we were there at all,” Cueva said. “You only get one or two days a week where you actually have water.”

Montanna Binder, a second year transfer at Fairhaven College, concentrating in global studies and photojournalism, went on the winter 2017 trip intended for Burma and Thailand. Her group was forced to abandon the Burma portion of the trip due to violence in the area. Instead, the group spent all 52 days in Thailand, which presented other challenges.

“I learned the most from the hard situations that I didn’t want to necessarily be in,” Binder said. “Just learning how to deal and communicate with a huge language barrier and then seeing how easy it is to break down that barrier.”

Binder was a part of three separate homestays, all of which were in villages struggling to retain their cultural heritage, in part due to expanding tourism in the region. Binder said the intimacy with these communities was impactful.

The Institute for Village Studies strives to address the ethics of U.S. citizens’ responsibility to the rest of the world.

“We have a couple of big goals,” Ashbaugh said. “One is developing meaningful relationships with people from different cultures and communities around the world. [The second] is fostering a sense of global citizenship.”

Ashbaugh said the institute focuses on fostering long term relationships with the communities, opting to return year-after-year rather than moving on to a new location.

Founded by Ted Hope in 1999, the Institute once partnered with other schools including Prescott College, Evergreen State College and Santa Clara University. While still not completely exclusive to Western, the Institute for Village Studies has a long-standing partnership with the university and, since moving its board to Bellingham, Ashbaugh considers Western to be its main partner.

Long term, Ashbaugh hopes to see the Institute expand its geographic outreach. In its current form, the focus lies heavily on South and
Southeast Asia.

“If you do end up having the opportunity to go abroad,” Ashbaugh said, “I think bringing [a] huge dose of humility with you is one of the most important things I could try to emphasize.”

The Institute for Village Studies has several trips planned for the coming year, including a social justice trip to Kenya in the winter.

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