This project has provided the opportunity for a diverse group of undergraduate students to engage in experiential learning about the range of religions, health orientations, and Asian cultural-linguistic groups in a cosmopolitan American city. Since 2015, small teams of undergraduate student researchers have been visiting Buddhist temples and centers throughout the Greater Philadelphia area to conduct unstructured interviews with monastics, teachers, community representatives, and members of local temples. These interviews have focused on discovering connections between Buddhism and health, but have also involved collecting additional data and photography.

Our project provides a model for faculty-led and student-centered research collaborations, and for student engagement in community-based participatory research. Involving students in ethnographic fieldwork is a valuable endeavor that contributes materially to their acquisition of research skills, as well as their awareness of the diversity of American urban centers and understanding of intercultural communication.

In many cases, our fieldwork has been facilitated by student research assistants, who themselves are members of the cultural-linguistic group represented at the temple, and who have been able to facilitate cultural awareness and offer some basic translation assistance when necessary. Thus, through this project, first- and second-generation Asian American and international students have had the ability to bring stories about their own communities and cultural traditions forward into the public sphere. For students from non-Asian backgrounds, the project has provided the opportunity to gain more intimate exposure to the multiethnic diversity of the Philadelphia region as well as practical experience with intercultural communication. Students learn to navigate environments with languages, customs, and cultural expectations that differ markedly from familiar norms, and are exposed to the sights, sounds, and experiences of Buddhist temple environments in a way that readings, lecture, and discussion simply cannot provide.

This project is inherently collaborative, as students have worked in small groups to contribute materials to the overall project over multiple semesters. It is an example of what Nicholas Holt has called “legacy pedagogy,” i.e., iterative projects that build from class to class and year to year in order to deepen student-centered learning and agency. It is also inherently interdisciplinary, involving learning in Buddhist Studies, American immigration, ethnographic methods, oral history, and photojournalism.

The Penn State Center for Engaged Scholarship in Philadelphia has recognized our project for its innovative contributions to pedagogical excellence, and has supported our project through a generous Student Engagement grant.