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From Skinny Jeans and Lefse to Saris and Shawarma: Student Reconnects with Birthplace Through Study Abroad

Katrina Hanson ’19 traded her skinny jeans for a sari and dove headfirst into her native culture during a semester abroad.

Katrina Hanson ’19 squirmed in her cramped seat on British Airways Flight 0143, adjusting her position for the umpteenth time as she tried to sleep, but it was no use. Adrenaline had kept her eyes wide open from Minneapolis to Chicago, from Chicago to London, and now, finally, from London to Hyderabad, India. Most of her fellow passengers would be new arrivals at Rajiv Ghandi International Airport, but Hanson had been there before—she just couldn’t remember it.

Adopted from an orphanage in Hyderabad at 11 months old, Hanson grew up 8,000 miles away steeped in the Swedish culture of Chisago City, Minnesota. She had always wanted to visit her birthplace, and the right opportunity finally came through Bethel University’s study abroad partnership with the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS).

“When I was in high school, I toured Bethel and heard about its amazing study abroad opportunities,” she says. “Once I was accepted, I knew I had to go, and my eyes and heart were set on India.”

After Hanson stepped off her flight into the crowds, clusters of motorbikes, and blistering 110-degree heat that characterized her new home, it didn’t take long for her to settle into life at the University of Hyderabad. She studied Indian philosophy, Hindi, microeconomics, and literature, and she quickly became a regular at the roadside shawarma stall just a few minutes from her dormitory.

Despite being thousands of miles away from home, Hanson was supported from the beginning of her journey to the end—by her family, her friends, and even Dean of Off-Campus Programs/International Studies Vincent Peters. Having grown up in India himself, Peters met with Hanson several times before her departure and helped her apply for the competitive Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, which is awarded to students who have been historically underrepresented in education abroad.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone abroad,” Hanson says. “I’m more independent, more adaptable, and more passionate about everything the world has to offer.”

During her six-month stay, Hanson went snorkeling in Bangkok, jet-skiing in the Arabian Ocean, and sightseeing at the Taj Mahal. She ate fish curry with her fingers on a backwater boating trip using a leaf as a plate. And she worshipped every Sunday with people from Nigeria, South Africa, India, and beyond.

Hanson’s homecoming was marked by diverse experiences and personal development, but it also delivered an unexpected perspective. When she visited a village near where her biological parents had lived, Hanson saw concrete huts scattered along a dirt road, with little furniture inside save for the occasional battery-powered fan. People pushed carts towed by animals, even as someone a few streets over drove a Mercedes-Benz.

Had Hanson grown up in the village, she would have been raised Hindu. She wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to high school, let alone college. And she probably would have been married before the age of 16.

“It was really impactful to see what my life could have been like,” Hanson says. “I feel even more grateful for the life I have now—that I can travel, that I grew up in a Christian home, and that I can do anything I set my mind to.”

She also visited Jesus Way International, an orphanage-turned-boarding-school run by the same woman who cared for Hanson during the first few months of her life. More than 90,000 children call the streets of Hyderabad home, and Jesus Way International houses, feeds, and educates as many of them as it can. Before she left, Hanson decided to sponsor a child for a year’s worth of room and board at the school—a significant investment for a college student with a part-time job.

“I wanted to do for someone else what had been done for me,” she says. “When one dollar is worth 69 rupees, God can multiply money in ways you’d never expect. It felt like the least I could do was say thank you in a tangible way.”

Now that she’s back stateside, Hanson misses the easygoing way of life in Hyderabad and the cultural emphasis on relationships over punctuality. As a freshman RA, AIFS alumni ambassador, and global ambassador for the Office of Off-Campus/International Studies, Hanson hardly has time for a 10-minute nap. She doesn’t know exactly when she’ll make it back to India—only that one day, she will.

“You learn so much about yourself when you study abroad,” Hanson says. “You’re put in a situation that’s uncomfortable, which forces you to grow. But you also learn so much about other cultures when you get to hear their stories. I feel really blessed to have had that kind of experience.”

Learn more about Bethel’s study abroad programs

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