Just hours after shaking jet lag from his head, Baikal Harris was helping the village children chop firewood and carry it home. Becca Nestler was helping make chapattis, or Indian flatbread. Jo Beer was helping to cut and gather animal fodder. And Joanna Petticord tried hard - to no avail - to milk some water buffaloes.
It may seem a funny way to earn college credits, but these experiences - part National Geographic and part reality TV - may give these American college students more of an understanding of how a typical Indian village works than they could ever gain from reading a book.
Mr. Harris, a senior at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., says that spending time in an Indian village has made him change his view of the meaning of poverty.
"The family we stayed with, their entertainment was just keeping busy," he says. "They were so proud of the land they had that gave them all the food they needed. They were fulfilled by what it took to get by."
Barely a decade after the Internet boom made it possible for mere college students to turn into hotshot executives, it comes as a bit of a shock to find college students studying life at its bare essence.
But the students of Warren Wilson College are hardly alone in seeking out the hard life, the gritty underbelly of a developing society that even most Indians would prefer not to see up close. And the professors who guide them on their travels say it is this experiential learning, rather than abstract lectures, that gets students to challenge old assumptions about living standards and resources, globalization and development, and you know, the meaning of it all.
"The purpose is to have something happen to us, a number of experiences so that we are really immersed in a culture and we have to really deal with it," says Bill Mosher, professor of intercultural studies and leader of the Warren Wilson study group. "You get overwhelmed a bit, and then you keep going. It's fun in a hard way."
Study groups like this one might seem rather retro, at a time when American executives like Bill Gates are studying the Indian software industry, out of admiration and fear of being overtaken. But for all the attention on high tech and call centers, India's economy is still driven mainly by agriculture. Its population lives primarily in villages. And its tourists - despite the plethora of ayurvedic spas and lavish Mogul-style castle hotels - still prefer a $10 hotel room and a 50-cent plate of lentils and rice.