Walt Hakala: Test-Running a Study Abroad Trip to India

Portrait of Filomena Critelli.

Prof. Walter Hakala, Director of the Asian Studies Program, wrote his proposal for the ELN Faculty Fellows program in an airport, of all places, which ended up being quite fitting considering what he would later accomplish as a fellow. He had just returned from a 3-week trip to central India in March 2018 when he saw our call for applications; he was so inspired by his trip and wanting to share these experiences with students that he wrote the proposal and applied, right there in the Newark airport.

Throughout his fellowship, Walt has worked toward his goal of bringing students to India in January 2019. Though he believes that to get the most out of the experience, students need to invest in learning the language and communicating with locals once they’re abroad, he also realizes that many of UB’s brightest students are in such rigidly structured programs that they wouldn’t have the time to meet any language requirement, despite a real interest. “I thought if I could design something that doesn’t require language—that is something that involves more scientific approaches—that opportunity would bring in a different population of students.”

Walt ended up recruiting five students whose interests ranged from mechanical engineering to political science—diversity in perspectives that created exciting possibilities for the experience. This unique group of students and the open design of the trip allowed for a novel and personalized mix of research directions related to the chief topic, traditional urban water infrastructure. The group explored beautiful old stepwells, which, unfortunately, have lately been neglected and treated as trash dumps, which was another issue that became a focus of the trip. Walt partnered with scholars and community activists, including two NGOs, so both he and the students could learn from them and understand the nuances of these issues.

Despite the challenges that come with organizing a trip like this and bringing students somewhere very different from what they’re used to, the January 2019 trip was a success and Walt is excited that some of the students are continuing to work on these issues, for instance helping the NGOs build websites to publicize their efforts. Getting students involved in hands-on research and projects and getting them excited about these topics is what makes it worthwhile for Walt. “My most fulfilling experiences have been working one-on-one with undergraduates who want to become experts, who want to learn more.”

Walt acknowledges that the ELN fellowship gave him flexibility to test-run this study abroad program, allowing him to see what’s possible and to form connections with global partners. He hopes to expand on these connections by possibly running more collaborative study abroad programs between the two countries and getting other UB faculty involved in the partnerships through project-based collaboration.

Walt’s trip is a great example of how ELN funding through our Faculty Fellows program can engage students in projects with global partners. If you want to explore your own connections with local or global partners or are interested in building out opportunities with ours, learn more about becoming a Faculty Fellow.

Written by Amanda Hellwig ‘19