Spring Break in Nepal: A study abroad trip like no other

April 29, 2024 11:28 AM

Group of people standing and kneeling outside a house and next to a tractor in Nepal.

Iowa State University students and faculty visited with a group of Tharu village farmers in the Chitwan District of Nepal during a study abroad trip to the country in March. The students and local farmers talked about the challenges faced in the country when it comes to growing and providing food and income for families.

By Whitney Baxter

In the first of what is hoped to be regular trips to the country, a group of 10 Iowa State University students got to experience agriculture in Nepal and how it is being impacted by climate change.

Led by Assistant Teaching Professor Ramesh Balayar and Professor David Peters, both rural sociologists in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, the Exploring Ecosystem Services and Subsistence Farming Activities in Rural Nepal study abroad trip took place over spring break last month. The experience was unique because no other study abroad programs are offered at Iowa State that take students to Nepal. And as a native of the country and someone who had worked there with international development organizations for over a decade, Balayar was able to provide his expertise and insights.

Large group of people oriented in a circle and dancing outside a housing unit.“I thought it would be great for a leading agricultural institution to expose students to issues facing the indigenous smallholder farmers, especially women in Nepal,” Balayar said.

The students and instructors visited two groups of farmers – one in the southern part of the country and one in the northern part – and saw first-hand how farming practices differ from those in the United States.

Colby Brandt, sophomore in agricultural and rural policy studies, marveled at the terrace systems used and how the ecosystems varied from one part of the country to another.

“They were just as surprised to see pictures of my family’s Minnesota farm as I was to see their farms,” Brandt said.

Morgan Lang, junior in global resource systems, said it was humbling to see the amount of manual labor used by the Nepali farmers.

Farms are much smaller in Nepal than in the United States, with some no bigger than the average house yard. In talking to the farmers, the students learned how prolonged drought or unexpected flooding linked to climate change can negatively impact farmers’ yields come harvest time.

“They depend so much more on having a successful crop to provide food and income for their families because they do not have crop insurance like we do in the United States,” Lang said.

People seated and standing inside a caravan as they look into a forest on a safari.“It really makes climate change real for students – and humanizes it – when they see the impact it has on people in less developed countries,” Peters said.

One of the topics the group talked about on the trip was the efforts people and organizations make to help the Nepali people. Often, groups will come in for a short period, provide tools to make immediate changes to the way Nepalis people go about various tasks, then leave and never return to do any follow-up.

“We need to look at it from a socio-cultural lens and determine how best to implement changes,” said Shradha Silori, junior in global resource systems and environmental science. “We need to consider if that is what the people in Nepal want, or is it what we think they want?”

Despite all the challenges people in Nepal face, the students agreed that everyone in the country was very friendly and always had a smile to share.

“They have so much hope despite the issues they face,” Brandt said. “It really changed my perspective and has made me do a lot of internal reflection and realize I shouldn’t let the little things get me down.”

As the students heard Balayar say multiple times throughout the trip, “Life is beautiful.”

“By the end of the trip, all of the students were saying that phrase, too,” Silori recalled with a smile.

Plans are already in place to offer the study abroad experience next year during spring break. Balayar and Peters also hope to add a summer-long experience in Nepal. The two recently submitted a U.S. State Department grant to fund these new projects.

“Having these kinds of people-to-people relationships really advances public relationships between Nepal and Iowa State,” Peters said.

Original article posted: https://www.cals.iastate.edu/news/2024/study-abroad-trip-no-other