Indians tour Vicksburg in exchange-visit plan

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 9, 2009

The countryside of Mississippi and its many sites are attractions a cultural exchange group from India has been enjoying since arriving Friday for a monthlong visit to the state, but the best part of their trip is likely to be the people they meet.

So said Hal Morgan, a Vicksburg Rotary Club member who led a Mississippi team to India in February, the first half of an exchange between the two countries.

“We had a fantastic time,” Morgan said. “We met lots of wonderful people, especially the families we stayed with. You get so involved with them, it’s actually a very emotional experience when you have to leave. You want to just hug their necks.”

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Rotary’s Group Study Exchange is an opportunity for young professionals to broaden their cultural understanding and enhance their business skills, said Indian team leader Man Mohan Singh, Morgan’s counterpart, who arrived with his team Wednesday for the Vicksburg leg of their Mississippi visit.

“The Rotary family believes that we promote international understanding,” Singh said. “We want young professional people from both countries to participate in exchanges and bring back what they have learned.” As their friends and associates pass on that knowledge, it spreads in wider and wider circles, he said. “That is how understanding is accomplished.”

The team from India includes Prabhdip Brar, 37, an artist and fashion designer with a doctoral degree earned by researching Indian costume art and related historical perspectives; Harnek Singh, 29, a computer specialist who runs both a computer education center and an English language institute for higher education students preparing to study in English-speaking countries; Surbhi Kalra, 34, a manager and sales trainer in life, health and pension insurance; and Shalini Rawat, 39, a kindergarten teacher.

The group arrived in Jackson on Friday. After two days there, they went to Natchez for three days, came to Vicksburg, and will also visit Greenwood, Columbus, and other Mississippi cities before returning to India April 30.

They were chosen from more than 40 applicants, culled through written applications, first-round interviews with members of their local Rotary Clubs and finally a meeting with a panel of representatives from 12 district Rotary clubs. It’s a highly competitive process, but the prize is a once-in-a-lifetime experience on personal, professional and cultural levels.

“We look for what is extraordinary in a prospect’s quest,” said Man Mohan Singh. “What is he or she trying to seek? Will it supplement his or her vocational excellence? And lastly, how well does his or her quest for knowledge reflect upon his or her own country?”

The program is unique, he said, in that it is fully funded by Rotary International. It is open to business and professional men and women between 25 and 40 years old. Except for the team leader, Rotary club members are not eligible. Any two countries where Rotary is active can participate in the four-to-six week exchanges.

Rawat visited a kindergarten class in Natchez. With a class of 50 children at home — with no aides or assistant teachers — Rawat was impressed by class sizes as low as 17 and 18 students here. There are many similarities between American and Indian teaching methods, she said, but she was struck by how well organized the instruction in American schools is and how extensive the teaching resources are.

Harnek Singh was surprised not to find computer instruction centers similar to what he operates in India but planned to visit Hinds Community College computer classes while in Vicksburg. The others had similar vocational visits planned with American counterparts.

Itineraries and schedules have been designed for both cultural and professional enrichment. They’ve met with United Way volunteers, including the Youth Help Interact program, spent part of this morning reading to children at Good Shepherd Community Center and had lunch with and addressed the Vicksburg Rotary Club. Tonight they’ll get a sunset river cruise on the Sweet Olive tour boat, and Friday tour the Vicksburg National Military Park, antebellum homes and Linden Plantation.

Prior exchanges have been with teams from France, the Netherlands and Australia.

Morgan visited India with Sarah Harris, an insurance claims investigator from Brandon; Alicia Netterville, a U.S. Census Bureau specialist and community development consultant from Greenville; Julie Skipper, a development and marketing officer from Jackson; and Ryan Walker, a teacher from Natchez. He’s assisting in the planning for next year’s exchange.

“We’re already looking forward to when we can send another group to Italy,” he said. “We want to get the word out early.”


Contact Pamela Hitchins at