How an Icebreaker Exercise Turned Into a Global Experience

Mariah Gray did not waste any time. When she was asked to share a weekend experience, she knew exactly what to say.

“I went to an Indian festival with my roommate,” she said with a smile to a room of Kent State University Student Ambassadors. “It was an ancient tradition that was totally outside of my culture. I dressed the part, ate the food, learned the dances and really just had a great time.” Her enthusiasm caught the attention of an acquaintance who ended up inviting Ms. Gray to join three other students on a summer study abroad trip to India. Before she knew it, Ms. Gray was about to leave the comforts of the only two homes she had ever known: Chardon, Ohio, and Kent State. This was not a festival; this was the real deal – 8000 miles across the globe, led by English professor Uma Krishnan, Ph.D., in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences.

All the students chose unique research projects. As a biology and pre-medicine major, Ms. Gray studied “Alternative Medicine in the West and Cultural Barriers that Affect Access and Availability to Quality Health Care.” She conducted interviews in the marketplace, universities and on the streets of India’s Golden Triangle, including Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.

One experience in particular stands out – a trip to the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Before she arrived, Ms. Gray envisioned architectural brilliance, extravagant marble floors and a lavish garden along the Yamuna river. All true, but what she also found was garbage, piles of it, especially from the disposable booties given to visitors to cover their shoes out of respect for the Hindu gods. So, out of respect for her native country, Dr. Krishnan took matters into her own hands.

“She started rallying children to young adults to take care of their home, to pick up, and to make India cleaner and better in the future,” Ms. Gray recalled. “They all jumped on board and started picking up booties and gathering them in bags to dispose of. Many adults and older people were upset by this because it was debunking a norm, but within an hour, we had gathered nearly all the booties surrounding the temple, and on the lawn, and threw them away.”

From India, Ms. Gray and her friend traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Out of money and looking for adventure, Ms. Gray packed a bookbag with water, pepper spray and a map, before heading out on a humid, 90-degree day - alone. She visited 30 temples, took 200 photos and walked 14 miles. She even knocked on the doors of hospitals, only to witness hundreds of people in need of medical help, sitting, waiting for hours, some for days to see a doctor. She eventually found someone who spoke English and was willing to give her a tour of the treatment rooms and a firsthand look at healthcare in Thailand.

“It was without a doubt the coolest experience of my life,” she said. “I got lost on my way home that evening, and being out of money, I accepted a hot meal from a monk in one of the Buddhist temples. I didn’t get to go do a cool activity that day like white water rafting or bathing with elephants like my friends did, but I feel I gained a true Thai experience, and that day was one of my fondest memories from the trip.”

Those memories and unimaginable experiences have given Ms. Gray a new perspective on her life, education and future plans. This summer she is completing a chemical and materials engineering internship and will be traveling to Ethiopia to volunteer at an HIV/AIDS orphanage, where she will gather even more healthcare data and observations.

“I am so lucky to be in the place and time I am, and going abroad opened my eyes to this realization and has motivated me to do my best work every day to honor that,” she said. “Also, much of my experience abroad has helped develop my interests in sociological research and contributed in large to the composition of my Honors thesis project.”

After Ms. Gray graduates in December 2018, she is going to attend medical school at Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) where she is thinking of pursing orthopedic oncology. She has advice for any student considering a trip overseas.

“Go where you wouldn’t dream to go, touch foot on uncharted ground and explore the world’s wonders and riches on different continents and in different cultures,” she said. “Approach every single thing with zero expectations, but go to be present, and take every opportunity! And lastly, meet others while abroad. Take the patience and time to hear their story and to tell yours.”

Ms. Gray’s study abroad story started with a festival and ended with an experience of a lifetime, one that will forever influence her research, career and the lives she will touch around the world.

If you would like to learn more about Kent State’s Study Abroad programs, visit the Office of Global Education,

POSTED: Tuesday, June 12, 2018 - 9:19am
UPDATED: Friday, January 11, 2019 - 4:21pm
Kristin Anderson