Ben Gersten, JTS/GS '18, had a once-in-a-lifetime experience when he received the opportunity to visit a community of Jain practitioners living in Kenya.
"We were traveling together all day, every day, for eight days," Gersten said. "I'd say I learned a lot from the places I went. [ ] It's unlikely I'll ever be visiting a Jain community ever again."
Gersten is one of six students who have just returned from a weeklong trip exploring diverse religious communities in Kenya and their interactions with other communities. The Kraft Global Fellowship, through the Office of the University Chaplain, offers students an opportunity to visit one of Columbia's global centers and the region it serves.
The fellowship, supported by the Kraft Family Fund and offered before each semester, provides a group of students with the opportunity to visit religious communities for one week in the region of one of Columbia's global centers. This past semester's six chosen fellows embarked on their trip with the Chaplain's office to Kenya this week.
The university has been looking for ways to allow undergraduates to take advantage of the global centers, a network of collaborative research centers that Columbia maintains abroad.
"Knowing that President Bollinger has a priority of getting students to these global centers, I was able to work with the Kraft Fund to say, 'Hello, we could probably help get students there,'" University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, who serves as the program's director, said.
The program works to make the global centers more accessible for students who either cannot fit study abroad or other programs into their academic plans, or afford one of Columbia's summer programs.
"The Kraft Global Fellows Program, and the global centers, and vision of Lee Bollinger would be that every student would be able to have a global experience," Davis said. "In designing the program we don't ask students to give a lot. [ ] We don't ask for any financial information."
The fellows noted that they were glad to have the opportunity to engage with Columbia's network of centers.
"This program really introduced me to the centers. I knew we had the opportunity to go but this is the first program that directly links [us to] a global center," Dan Louis, GS '16 and a fellow, said in an interview before the trip.
Elizabeth Runtz, GS '17 and another fellow, also noted the importance of the mission behind the fellowship.
"Religion is such a huge part of our world. It had such a huge effect on people's cultures, people's identities," Runtz said. "I guess that's what drew me to the trip, to learn more about the different religious communities in Kenya and how they all fit together."
The fellowship provides students with the opportunity to learn in a different environment, experiencing other cultures and perspectives in a way that is difficult to replicate on campus.
"In the pre-trip meetings that the Kraft Global Fellows have had, we've done a number of readings about Kenya and the religious aspects of Kenyan culture," Gersten said. "I realize that in a lot of the Global Core classes we have here, we've done similar readings in a vacuum [ ]. I just see myself using the understanding beyond the 75 minutes of this class."
Gersten also said that the trip allowed him to expand his horizons by seeing the traditions of other cultures.
"I really haven't had much exposure to other religions. Actually interacting with people of other faiths is a really crucial experience," Gersten said. "This [the trip] was really one of the only ones that I've had visiting other faith communities."
Davis emphasized the inherent value in engaging with other cultures in person.
"You see how much Kenya is a multiethnic, multicultural society," Davis said. "You can read it in a book, but we feel when you're walking around and you're running into people, it's much more obvious."
Students interested in applying for the Kraft Fellowship can download an application here.