CEHD students explore India through interdisciplinary study abroad

Contact: Chris Hybels

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“Going to India for me was about stepping outside of my comfort zone and navigating a new environment that fosters independence, adaptability and resilience," says Ethan Cheatham, a Western Michigan University sport management student.

Cheatham was one of eight College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) students to participate in Western's Education and Human Development in India study abroad trip. These CEHD students joined fellow students and faculty from the college's of business and health and human services, allowing for a well rounded and diverse knowledge base. Co-led by Dr. Louann Bierlein Palmer, professor of educational leadership, the trip aimed to bring a once-in-a-lifetime experiential learning opportunity to students across all academic levels and programs of study. The award-winning study abroad experience takes students to India to learn about their culture and how they are meeting the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Students spent two weeks traveling across the country visiting schools, nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies to see how they are addressing four of the SDGs:

  • No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  • Good Health and Well-Being: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  • Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

"Our annual study abroad trip purposely mixes undergraduate and graduate students from multiple colleges, to encourage a true interdisciplinary experience," says Palmer. "The goal is for students to step outside their traditional thinking and to build bridges across disciplines and cultures."  


Students spent the first half of the trip in Darjeeling, a small community at the base of the Himalayas. In Darjeeling, they worked with the children of tea plantation workers at a rural government school. And also learned from a women's self help group that is actively working to develop eco-friendly agriculture practices in their community.

"Experiencing India's culture and education systems firsthand taught me invaluable lessons that will make me a more compassionate and dedicated teacher, including lessons about incorporating sustainability, fostering connections and building a community that I will carry with me," says Whitney Lewis, an elementary education student. "I learned that organizations, like schools, thrive when they balance care for the environment, people and the community."


Bella Tetner, Sara Clark, Eleonora Philopoulos and Collin Degenfedler experienced a traditional flower welcome to India.

During the second week of the trip, the study abroad group traveled to Bangalore, capital of India's Karnataka state. In the capital, they spent time visiting schools and after-school learning programs. Interacting with children, students helped them practice their English and joined in during their impromptu dance parties. 

The study abroad group also toured several of the largest corporations in India, including Bosch, Intel and Himalaya Technologies to learn about their corporate social responsibility efforts.

"I loved learning about the various ways Indian businesses are donating funds to public health initiatives such as caregiver assistance programs, mobile health units to reach rural communities, suicide prevention education with high stress jobs such as farming; environmental efforts such as organic farming, safe drinking water and increasing tree plantations, and education supports such as bathroom renovations and funds for free lunch for schools in low socioeconomic areas," says Sara Clark, a higher education leadership doctoral student and academic fieldwork coordinator in the Department of Occupational Therapy.

Eleonora Philopoulos, a higher education leadership doctoral student and WMU’s Facilities Management's director of architecture and design, adds "traveling to India literally colored my life with new perspectives of the country’s rich history, culture and its transforming future. From visiting the red pandas and tea gardens in Darjeeling, to the bustling city of Bangalore, it was impressive to see how India is making a priority to improve poverty, education and sustainable practices –through their corporate social responsibility model that is unique to only India.”


This interdisciplinary study abroad opportunity offers a multi-cultural experience to students of all levels and majors. Student testimonials explain the impact the experience had on them:

  • Logan Bockheim, a special education teacher and master's student in special education: “India was a trip that changed my outlook on the education system around the world and has made my passion for changing the disability community worldwide. My dream job is to do teacher consulting in countries that do not treat students with disabilities as equals to other students. This country proved to me that I need to keep reaching for my goals, and gave me confidence that I can reach them. Not only have I made connections in India, but it has allowed me to grow my passion for disability education, and for that I could never thank India enough.“
  • Mo Brooks, a student success navigator in WMU's Merze Tate College and master's student in organizational change leadership: "The study abroad trip to India has made me a better leader and increased my cultural intelligence; it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a person who takes leadership seriously and believes it is valuable, this trip to India has shown me important nuances of leadership. Leadership was demonstrated and not taught through lectures. As a leadership junkie, I learned through this trip that the best leadership is screaming, 'Look at me, I am leading!' I have always heard that traveling internationally will change you as a human because you get to experience life differently from yours. They were not lying. Everything from eating with your hands and connecting with your food to pulling children out of the slums to get them a better opportunity to pull their families out of poverty. I am different and fortunate for this opportunity.”
  • Alicia Kornowa, director of admission at WMU and doctoral student in higher education leadership: “On every level, India is a country of contrasts. This trip brings together education, social justice and business to provide a unique and multifaceted lens to examine the cultural and developmental reasons for these variations—and how India is working through their challenges and proud of their accomplishments. Highly recommend!”
  • Riley Lentz, a 6th grade teacher in the Mattawan District and master's student in the K-12 educational leadership principal program: "If you are considering this trip, think about all of the new and exciting experiences waiting for you in India. You will be amongst the largest population in the world, surrounded by a bright, vibrant culture, and with fellow students who are eager to explore India with you. As a 6th-grade social studies teacher, I teach students about the world around them. However, this trip provided me with an on-the-ground experience that is more valuable than a textbook can provide. Since returning from India, I have enjoyed presenting videos and pictures for my sixth graders. The number of questions my students ask about my time in India is thrilling. It makes me want to include more activities to make my students global citizens. I am so happy I decided to try something new and travel to India."


Preparations are already underway for the fall 2024 interdisciplinary study abroad trip to India. Undergraduates of all majors can consider this study abroad as a WES Level III (Global Perspectives) class, which meets the Diversity and Inclusion (DI) requirement. Depending on program, graduate students can use the study abroad as an elective course. Partial scholarships are also available, visit the study abroad scholarship webpage to learn more. 

Questions? Contact Dr. Louann Bierlein Palmer, professor of educational leadership.

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