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USF event draws teens to explore Indian culture

The teenagers sat quietly inside their University of South Florida classroom. Boys in khakis and polo shirts sat on one side of the room; ebony-haired girls in flowing pastel saris on the other.

Their attention was on the instructor at the front of the room, where a 15-day exploration of Indian culture and self-study came down to one final lesson.

"The best thing we learned was unity," said Ami Patel, 17, of New Jersey, as she and several friends exited the lecture hall on Friday.

For two weeks Patel and more than 700 students from the United States and Canada gathered for Day Youth Camp 2002.

The national event is organized by members of the Swadhyay movement (meaning "self-study") _ a growing Hindu sect a little more than 50 years old.

Founded by 82-year-old Pandurang Shastri Athavale in India, Swadhyayees live by the philosophy that God is in everyone. Emphasis is placed on service, acceptance of others and social progress.

"It has 10,000 to 20,000 members in the United States and it's increasing," said Tampa Bay hotel owner Ghanshyam Patel. That is who we are teaching here now; the youth."

In its eighth year, the camp instructs students ages 14 to 20, on everything from tying a sari to building a computer. Workshops include lessons on the Gujarati alphabet, traditional meals and music, plus cultural games, financial planning, CPR and mehndi (the art of hand painting with henna).

"Right now we're learning about world religion and revolutionary fighters in Indian culture," said Parth Patel, 17, from Houston. "We learn about that in school and stuff but not a lot. Being Indian I want to know more."

Preparing to end his fourth year at the camp this weekend, Patel said part of its allure is the friendships he forms.

"The sessions are really great," he said. "But I get to meet friends from all over. You build relationships."

Students arrived in Tampa on July 17 and left Saturday after workshops, trips to the beach and a visit to Busch Gardens.

"They want to meet people of their own age, have some free time and meet people of their culture," said Dr. Amit Barot, a Suffolk, Va. neurologist who taught Hinduism and Buddhism as part of the camp's world religion classes.

Nearly 150 adults traveled from across the country and Tampa Bay to help chaperone, teach, conduct workshops and transport the students across campus and to the airport.

Their work was volunteer _ part of their service to God, said Barot. Students paid about $400 for travel, lodging and meals during the two weeks. They coordinated and performed a farewell cultural program featuring music and skits at the SunDome before traveling home Saturday.

"An attempt is made to teach the kids about various cultures and religions; about their roots and to help them grow in the right direction," said Patel, the owner of several Howard Johnsons in Tampa and St. Petersburg. "That's the bottom line."

Such an endeavor is important enough to make time in a busy schedule, said Dr. Sunil Gandhi, a Citrus County oncologist who helped spearhead the event. "It is a matter of giving priority."