Welcome to Varanasi
At CET, our goal is to make study abroad accessible for all. We believe that learning happens best when your class reflects the world around us—complex and diverse. So we work hard to create and maintain programs that support students of all races, religions, abilities, gender identities, and sexual orientations. No matter where you are coming from, we want you to have a successful study abroad experience.
CET makes every effort to offer accommodations comparable to those of your home institution. Disclosing early helps us to make proper preparations and work with you to determine if a program will be a good fit. We recommend that you use the following details to inform your decisions and conversations with your Student Services Coordinator.
Race & Ethnicity
Varanasi attracts many foreign tourists and students, so there is a fairly prominent international population. Despite this, past students have often reported feeling that they draw attention and stares. Generally speaking, India is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country and there is no official discrimination against specific groups or communities. However, personal prejudices may sometimes be expressed in the form of overt, blunt comments that students may occasionally hear.
In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court overturned Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality nationwide. However, LGBTQ issues remain taboo in India, especially in more conservative communities like Varanasi. Younger people may be more open to these issues, but it is not often discussed openly.
Traditional gender roles in the family exist across all levels of Indian society. However, this is changing in populations that are younger or more educated, and students are welcome to tactfully ask questions and discuss related topics after gaining a bit of in-country context. There are also certain terms, body language, and mannerisms that are generally used in local culture and language to create respectful distance and space in interactions between genders. International students living in Varanasi will find learning these cues helpful for successful interactions with locals.
Recently, the Indian Supreme Court indicated a desire to decriminalize gender orientations, though no official actions have been made at this time. Hijras (a term for trans individuals) are legally recognized under Indian law as a third gender. Most official documents, like passports and the Aadhar (the local ID card), offer the option of choosing trans as their gender, or opting out of this field altogether. However, many security lines in India are still separated by “male” and “female” checks, which may lead to some potential confusion or discomfort for gender diverse students.
Varanasi—and India in general—is very diverse in terms of religion. Though no region is free of incidents resulting from religious conflicts, the general attitude in Varanasi is that of tolerance.
Cost of Living
The day-to-day cost of living in Varanasi is generally far cheaper than that of most places in the United States, as well as larger Asian cities. Seeing an international movie at a local theater costs roughly 3.57 USD, and a gym membership is around 30 USD/month. Check out our budget sheet to get an idea of what life in Varanasi might look like financially.
ACCESS in ACADEMICS
Semesters are front-loaded to allot for more research project time towards the end of your term. Students typically spend 5 hours in a classroom on weekdays in the beginning of the semester. Closer to the end of the term, some days may have 2 hours of class while other days are completely free to spend on the Directed Field Study project. Class size ranges from 4 to 10 students on average, while the Tutorials are often 1 or 2 students paired with a local master.
Available for those with documented need: extra exam time; modified deadlines; low-distraction test environment; note takers; exam readers; captioned videos or audio recordings of lectures; a computer to take exams; sighted companions; mobility orientation to campus; preferential seating; syllabi, readings, and assignments in advance
Classrooms and restrooms in the CET Program House are wheelchair accessible. An accessible Community-Based Learning site can be arranged with advanced notice.
CET occasionally plans mandatory academic activities and optional trips to nearby sites and other cities after class and on weekends. Excursions may involve urban walking, rural hiking, use of public transportation, and/or going up and down stairs.
Itinerary modifications and accommodations can be made for students with documented need. Transportation can be arranged as necessary, and excused absences are provided for mandatory excursions that are inaccessible due to a disability.
ACCESS IN HOUSING
Your Home Abroad
In a homestay, you live in the house of a CET-vetted local family. You share a bathroom and other common rooms with your host family and specific rules on when and how rooms can be accessed are discussed during move in. Your bedroom door has its own lock and you can decide whether family members can hang out in your room or request that it remains a private space.
If you live in an apartment, you share a room with local roommates in an apartment with other CET peers. Housing will look a little different for each student but all are approximately a 20-minute walk from the Program House. A wheelchair-accessible housing assignment can be arranged with advanced notice.
In the apartment, students share double occupancy rooms with a local roommates. The local roommates are asked questions relating to different backgrounds and the situation of students they would potentially be living with to gauge comfort level and sensitivity. In homestays, families have shown themselves to be open to housing students with different gender presentations.
When there are sidewalks in the city, some locations may lack ramp access. Many of these sidewalks can be uneven and are not well-separated from the street. Local streets, pathways, and roads may also be uneven and shared with local traffic. The older parts of the city (some of which are included in course-related walks) may be a serious challenge for students with mobility issues. Some auto-rickshaws may be wheelchair accessible if the wheelchair is foldable. However, mobility elsewhere in the city could be a challenge.
Health & Diet
Health & Medicine
During orientation, on-site staff provide students with basic information and recommendations for seeing a doctor and buying medicine. There are some prescription medications that are not accessible in India—students should do their research beforehand and ensure they bring their prescription and the necessary amount if in-country refills won’t be possible.
Keeping Fit in Varanasi
There are several gyms around Varanasi where students can obtain a short-term membership for a reasonable monthly fee of around 30 USD. Alternatively, Banaras Hindu University is a great location for morning workouts. Students frequently make use of the track and/or campus for runs, as well as the tennis and basketball courts.
Managing Mental Health
CET maintains a list of qualified psychiatrists and psychologists that are available to counsel students if needed. On-site staff can provide contact information upon request.
Many special dietary needs can be easily accommodated in India, especially vegetarian diets. However, vegan diets are harder to maintain because many foods contain dairy. For meals at the CET program house and homestays, this is not an issue (meals are vegetarian and allergens are considered during cooking). Gluten-free diets are possible to maintain as well as long as students are mindful of ingredients. Keeping kosher is more difficult, and it is suggested that these students stay off meat unless they are specifically told otherwise. Halal meat can be found in Muslim restaurants and neighborhoods. Because the program house meals are vegetarian, maintaining protein levels could be challenging for students allergic to lentils. Eggs are readily available to help with this balance.
Resources from Alumni
These are alumni-written essays that reflect upon how their own identity affected their time abroad (both good and bad) and what it was like to navigate another culture in their position. We encourage you to read these to better understand what studying abroad in Italy could be like for you or your future peers.
- There are no Perspective Pieces for UW in India: Varanasi yet. Interested in writing about your experience in Varanasi? Tell us about your time abroad.
India Alumni Insight
In final evaluations, we ask students how their identities affected their experience abroad. The following are a few select quotes from recent program evaluations to help you understand what life in India may be like for you or your future peers.
This is a curated list of blog posts chosen specifically to provide context for life abroad. Posts here may cover culture shock, diversity, daily life and workload, etc. To see all posts from students in Varanasi, head to the Student Voices blog.
- The Program House is a Beautiful Community
By Teddy Powers, UW in India: Varanasi
University of Wisconsin-Madison | 2018-2019 Academic Year
- One Year Later—Advice to Students About to Go to India
By Maggie Cram, UW in India: Varanasi
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Spring 2017
TALK TO ALUMNI
Chat with alumni about their experiences abroad. Once you start an application, your online CET account will give you access to the following resources:
- Alumni Support List: A directory of students who have volunteered to chat about their experiences abroad in India.
- Identity Abroad Support Network: A group of students who have volunteered to discuss their identity-related experiences in India. This is a volunteer-based program that started in 2019. Volunteers can also opt to have their contact information kept privately by CET staff and only shared when certain lived experiences are asked about.
Don’t see anyone listed for the Identity Abroad Support Network? Call CET for more information and resources. Consider joining after your program to support other minority students abroad.