How Just One College Study Abroad Experience Changes the Lives of Many
May 12, 2014
By Erika Dockery
“Most people that come to Nepal – go from the airport to their hotel. They may see a few sights, hike the Himalayas, and then return to their hotel for a good meal and shower. That’s not Nepal. It’s the history and people that make this a special place. Despite being one of the poorest countries, it’s rich with culture and pride.” – Jennifer Rothchild, March 28, 2014.
Professor Subedi and I met Jennifer Rothchild ’93, her husband Chris Butler ‘92, Brad Schonhoft ’93, and Dinesh Rajmandari in Kathmandu. It was a reunion of sorts. Their story began twenty-two years ago and has impacted hundreds of lives all over the globe from Oxford, Ohio to Pokhara, Nepal.
When Jennifer Rothchild came to Miami in 1990 from Atlanta, she planned to become a pediatrician, but she didn’t expect to one day change children’s lives in such a profound way halfway across the world. During her freshman year, in an Introduction to Sociology class, she and classmate Katie Hyde ’93 learned about Nepal from their instructor Dr. Janardan Subedi. Before that, Jennifer only knew of Nepal as home to Mt. Everest and, she had only been outside the country once – to England. She and Katie often pestered Dr. Subedi to take them on a study tour to his native country. However, due to political unrest, this wasn’t possible until just after her junior year.
That summer of 1992, Jennifer’s parents put their trust in Miami and allowed their daughter to go for a six week trip to Nepal. The twenty Miami students on this inaugural Nepal study trip were greeted in the Kathmandu airport with a traditional scarf and necklace of marigolds. The students checked into their hotel – which became their classroom for the next couple of weeks. They studied the Nepali language, immersed themselves in cultural orientation and lectures by day, and enjoyed sightseeing in the afternoons and evenings. The visited Hindu and Buddhist temples, and ancient villages surrounded by Himalayan Mountains towering in the distance.
Holy Man, Kathmandu 2014
White Temple, Kathmandu 2014
Their second two weeks was spent trekking the Himalayas with a trusted guide. Professor Subedi invited a couple of the local lecturers to join the students. Also on that trip was Dinesh Rajmandari, one of the Nepali language instructors who, at the time, was about the same age as the students.
Trekking in the Himalayas
In the final two weeks of the program the students stayed in the homes of local families. Jennifer and another two students lived in a village outside Kathmandu. Jennifer recounts that her living quarters were the most primitive and that Dr. Subedi purposely paired her with the poorest family because she came from a privileged background.
Jennifer recalls her reactions to her living quarters. “I was completely out of my comfort zone. The bathroom was outside. We showered outside. They had nothing, but gave everything.” Over the years, Jennifer has kept in touch with her host family. “They still call me their daughter today.”
One of the most measurable way her global experience changed her was that she learned a new language. And, she says, her Nepali was never better then when she lived with that host family. The family knew no English and in those days exposure to English TV was uncommon. Jennifer laughs when she remembers how they made up sign language to get through the day.
At first Jennifer was outraged to learn that the family didn’t send their only daughter to school. But she learned to expand her thinking beyond the boundaries of Oxford, Ohio. With her new cultural framework, she came to understand that the daughter really preferred to contribute to the family in other ways. Jennifer credits this lesson as one that helped shape her “global feminist” viewpoint.
During that last two weeks, the students also worked as interns in fields that aligned with their scholarly pursuits. Jennifer worked at the Konti Children’s Hospital. She still remembers the sights, smells and sounds. “The children wove their way into my heart.”
Besides the experiences of global learning, Jennifer met lifelong friends on that trip. Jennifer returned to Oxford….transformed. “I rethought everything. My perspective on the world changed. I saw so many inequalities on a micro and macro level.” Jennifer decided to focus on further study in sociology and was accepted to Georgia State for her Master’s program.
Just two summer later, Jennifer and Katie returned to Nepal to assist Dr. Subedi with the continued study abroad program. Jennifer vividly remembers their conversation on the plane ride home. They asked Dr. Subedi what they could do to “give back” to this country that now was so much a part of their hearts. He suggested, “Why don’t you open an orphanage? So many children need help.”
Jennifer and Katie returned to Nepal together again in ’96 to conduct gender studies research in Jiri. And they continued staying in touch with many they had met on the initial trip including Dr. Subedi, Brad Schonhoft, and Dinesh Rajmandari, their Nepali language teacher.
While pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology, Jennifer started dating fellow Miamian, Chris Butler ’92. Chris was living in Alaska & working for NPR. But when Jennifer invited him to accompany her to Nepal in ’99 while she worked on her dissertation, he accepted. This would be Chris’ first trip out of the United States.
They lived in Nepal for ten months and Chris’ passion grew…both for Jennifer…and Nepal. But even when the couple returned to Cleveland in 2003 they thought of Nepal and its people often. Shortly after moving back to the States, Chris read an article written by a retired judge (Olga Murry) who had started an orphanage in Nepal and he wondered if he and Jennifer could also start an orphanage as a way to help children from the country that had permanently touched their hearts.
“Chris is a dreamer and a doer.” Jennifer proudly states. “We talked then called our friends Katie and Brad.” Chris adds, “Brad has a business sense. He helped us put a business plan together and insisted that we raise three years of starting operating capital. We called our friend Dinesh and he and his wife agreed to run the orphanage and find Nepali board members.”
Jennifer and Chris married in 2004 and in lieu of wedding gifts the couple requested donations to Sam’s House [see sidebar]. The fundraising had seriously begun. Many more Miami alumni now were involved as were Jennifer and Chris’ family members.
By 2007 the Sam’s House US board and the Nepali board and staff were ready to open Sam’s House. Known as Kopeli Children’s Home in Nepal and located in Pokhara, the house is home to ~35 children who may be admitted as young as age three. There is a 3:2 girls to boys’ ratio and the children attend school nearby but live as a family in this three story home.
The Nepali Board submits an annual budget to the Sam’s House Board, whose main responsibility is to raise annual support. Over the years, family and friends have hosted garage sales, pool parties, and relay races. To date, over fifty Miami alumni have contributed to Sam’s House.
Kristine Segrist, after running the NYC marathon in 2008. Kristine collected pledges for Sam’s House
Today, Jennifer and Chris (and their two adopted daughters, Laxmi (originally from Nepal) & Meme (originally from China) are once again living and working in Nepal for the ’13-’14 academic year — Jennifer on a sabbatical and Chris conducting research for his Ph.D. dissertation. They are part of a much larger family and are considered so by the Sam’s House children and staff. When the children at Sam’s House see Jennifer, they run to embrace her calling out “Auntie, Auntie.”
Jennifer with kids at Sam’s House, March 2014
When asked why study abroad during college is important to a quality liberal education, Chris answers “travel is in and of itself education. Most of us live pretty provincial lives. Traveling and living abroad helps us appreciate how vast and diverse the world is.”
And when addressing the common question of “Why help kids in Nepal when there are poor kids right here in [Butler County]?” Jennifer becomes passionate. “Being a global citizen means that your boundaries expand. You take on a responsibility that goes beyond a local community. We have more safety nets in the US. These children didn’t chose to be born in Nepal vs the US and we can touch and improve their lives – which is impactful. When you study abroad, you learn about people’s stories.”
Sam’s House kids learning about photography
This 2014 reunion between teachers (Miami professor Janardan Subedi and Nepali language teacher Dinesh Rajmandari) and students (Jennifer Rothchild, Chris Butler and Brad Schonhoft) spanned two decades but during that time thirty-five children were given a permanent and safe home and hope for a future. And many more children’s lives will be forever changed as Sam’s House continues to expand. Also, dozens of jobs have been created for the staff of Sam’s House, dozens of volunteers and donors have invested their resources for these children, and dozens more students have been educated by Chris, Jennifer & Katie, who are all well-respected and liked professors.
Chris and Jennifer surrounded by the children and staff at Sam’s House, March 2014
Jennifer Rothchild, Chris Butler & Katie Hyde continue to inspire a new generation to study abroad and “give back.” Jennifer is Associate Professor & Coordinator of the Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies program at University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM). Chris is a Teaching Specialist in the Sociology Dept, also at UMM. Jennifer and Chris will be leading their first study abroad program to Nepal on behalf of UMM in the summer of 2015. Katie is a lecturing fellow at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. She spends her summers in Tanzania with students from Duke University on a program called “Literacy through Photography.”
For more information on Sam’s House, please visit www.samshouse.org and/or like Sam’s House–A Nepalese Orphanage on Facebook.