Current Issue

Worlds Apart

Student Brandon Johnson touches hands with a Tibetan monk

DU students, including Brandon Johnson, started their days in Dharamsala with a meditative walk clockwise around the temple. Photo: Ileya Finberg

Phuntsok was tortured nearly to death.

For five years, the Tibetan dissident had been beaten, strangled, shocked, whipped — and worse — by Chinese authorities.

As DU students listened to Phuntsok’s visceral retelling of his torture, their families snuggled in for a cozy holiday season some 8,000 miles away in the United States.


Living and engaging in a different world

In November 2005, as most DU students headed home for the winter break, a dozen others embarked on their greatest educational challenge — spending four weeks in Dharamsala, India, working with and learning from refugees like Phuntsok. The students were participants in Project Dharamsala, an international service-learning program that helps students apply classroom knowledge while learning from others as they engage in field service.

A city of some 100,000 people — including the Dalai Lama and roughly 8,000 other Tibetan refugees — Dharamsala is nestled at the foot of the Himalayas in northern India.

“It is hard to sit at the foothills of these vast, awe-inspiring Himalayas and not feel like your soul is about to take flight into some wild, wonderful journey of self-discovery,” senior chemistry and English major Marta Martins recorded in her journal. “It has only been four days since we arrived in Dharamsala, and the adventure has only just begun.”

Self-discovery is part of the aim of the five-credit Project Dharamsala, which began with an on-campus class during fall quarter and culminated with the month-long immersion in India and creation of a portfolio.

“Academics, living and working in the community, and reflection all together create the learning in international service learning programs,” says Project Dharamsala founder Glenn Fee, associate director of DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.

DU also offers international service learning (ISL) programs in Bosnia, South Africa, El Salvador and Thailand. The goal of such programs is more than study abroad, says Internationalization Vice Provost Ved Nanda.

“ISL is special because it combines academics with real life experiences,” he explains. “Through service, students learn and grow while responding to actual needs of the community.”

With programs like Project Dharamsala, Nanda says, the University backs up its talk about public good, experiential learning and civic engagement with a commitment and dedication to seeing these ideals realized.

Students paid $6,000 each (with help from an ISL scholarship fund and other financial aid) for Project Dharamsala tuition and travel expenses. The cost, students say, is worth every penny. They prepared for the experience by studying the histories and cultures of Tibet and India and by exploring service learning theories. In India, the students translated those theories into practice by volunteering as English instructors, sharing computer expertise or researching nonprofit incorporation for local organizations. Their service brought them in contact with Indian schoolchildren, Tibetan monks and nuns, human rights organizers, former political prisoners, refugees and artists.

The first group of nine University of Denver students immersed themselves in Dharamsala in 2002 after initially planning to spend the winter break in Nepal. That program was canceled when Maoist activity exploded in the country.

Encouraged by his contacts in Dharamsala, Fee enlisted the support of philosophy Associate Professor Roscoe Hill and Nanda, who is a native of India. In six weeks, Project Dharamsala was born with Hill on board as an instructor. Over the past four years, Fee and Hill have accompanied 48 students to Dharamsala, coordinating their service placements and helping with the sometimes heady immersion process.

That immersion begins when the students land in Delhi after a 7,730-mile flight from Denver.

“Anywhere you went, there were hundreds of people,” says sophomore international business major Will Seitz. “The smells, sounds and sensations were overwhelming at first.”

After a day in Delhi, the DU group rode the rails 14 hours to Dharamsala, their home for 21 days. There they found two worlds: a tourist hotspot in McLeod Ganj, or upper Dharamsala, and 1,000 feet below, a distinctly Indian lower Dharamsala.

The DU contingent stayed in an upper Dharamsala guesthouse, traversing steep unpaved streets — clogged more often with sheep, cows and market stalls than cars — to and from volunteer sites in lower Dharamsala.

Although only Indians are legally permitted to own land, many of Dharamsala’s residents are international refugees who have fled political upheaval. Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama, who sought refuge in 1959 when violence erupted in Chinese-occupied Tibet. The Indian government offered up Dharamsala, formerly a colonial hill station, and the following year, the Dalai Lama and his administration moved in. Dharamsala’s shopkeepers include a number of Kashmiris who began streaming in 15 years ago when civil war consumed their country.

Life in India was beyond what some students had expected.

“You were completely taken out of your element and put into this different world,” recalls junior international studies major Margaux Lochmiller. “Nothing we did could have prepared our group for planet India.”

Even so, the group soon found a rhythm. Most days began with an early meditative walk clockwise on the path, or kora, around the Dalai Lama’s temple. After breakfast, students attended lectures by organizations such as the Tibetan Women’s Association. Students would do service work in the afternoons; then, individually, they’d tutor former political prisoners from Gu-Chu-Sum. During English practice, the refugees shared stories about their hardships under the Chinese and their exile to India. During two-hour reflection sessions every other night, students discussed what they’d learned.

Many talks centered on Tibet’s future. After 47 years of Chinese occupation, exiled Tibetans maintain hope for an independent or autonomous Tibet. Yet, some factions prefer a more active stance against China. Although the longstanding nonviolent movement has attracted media attention, not a single nation recognizes Tibet’s sovereignty. Still, with the Dalai Lama as their spokesperson, Tibetans living in exile continue to preserve their traditions. And although they can’t return to Tibet or easily travel abroad, they can and do vote.

Tenzin Norbu, legislative counsel for the Tibetan Parliament in exile, took students on a tour of Parliament Hall. Students can’t work there, he says, because the parliament works entirely in the Tibetan language. But, Norbu has witnessed the students’ work elsewhere in Dharamsala.

“The presence of DU students within different offices, especially at the nongovernmental organizations, are helpful both in the short and long term,” Norbu says. “The time at these places offers them a great deal of information about Tibet, and eventually, it will help the Tibetan cause.”

Student Wesley Cables cradles a young girl in McLeod Ganj.

Student Wesley Cables cradles a young girl in McLeod Ganj. Photo: Ileya Finberg

In the short term, students were eager to share their classroom knowledge with their new Tibetan and Indian friends. Graduate student Wesley Cables, an international management and international studies major, describes English conversation practice.

“It was less conversation and more six people grilling me about topics ranging from psychoanalysis to volcanoes,” says Cables. “My favorite question was, ‘If you have a girlfriend that you love and you love your family, but your family does not love your girlfriend, who will you side with, and why?'”

Fee and Hill say “helping” the people of Dharamsala isn’t what Project Dharamsala is about. More important, they say, it fosters connections and builds community by maintaining an exchange they hope is even.

Sarika Singh is one beneficiary of that exchange. She operates Thangde Gatsal Studio, a school devoted to preserving the centuries-old tradition of devotional thangka painting. Singh says the school owes much of its business organization to University of Denver students. In 2002, students set up the studio’s mailing list and filing system. The next year, they developed a business plan and computerized files, and in 2005, students further refined the filing systems and organized a list of commissions. They’re continuing to help Singh to form a U.S. nonprofit.

“We were struggling in a number of areas before DU students arrived on the scene,” Singh says. “Even when they are not here, their presence can be felt in terms of the contributions they have made.

“It is an exchange of cultures, skills and friendship,” she adds. “On our side, we offer workshops on the world of Tibetan art. On their side, DU students help us make our business plans and offer language classes and computer skills.”

Through Project Dharamsala, the entire group of DU students gained a deeper understanding of Tibetan and Indian cultures, but for some its effect was profound. Senior public policy major Jamie Grim had planned to focus her career on domestic interests.

“I’ve always said we need to fix our own problems,” says Grim, “but this totally changed my career path. Now I’m more interested in an international focus.”

Senior history and English major Brandon Johnson, initially skeptical that he’d help anyone improve their language skills in just three weeks, returned with a greater appreciation for the cultural exchange.

“English is becoming the universal second language. Knowing it provides the opportunity for Tibetans to appeal to an international community for support,” Johnson says. “Going from this cozy academic environment to a ‘developing’ country was quite a change,” he adds. “I could never be challenged like this at DU.”

This year’s participants — the program’s youngest and most traveled — were tested physically, mentally and emotionally as Project Dharamsala called into question the ways they had lived their lives and how their decisions affected others. As ways of perceiving the world began to shift, some stopped wearing watches and others forgot — for the first time since adolescence-about their appearance.

They had left DU as students with international interests, but they returned as global citizens. And it had happened before.

Joe Campe, BA ’04, part of the inaugural Project Dharamsala, says seeing the Tibetan struggle up close had a powerful impact.

“It reinvigorated in me a desire to work with communities in solidarity,” Campe says. “Rather than becoming a medical doctor, I now want to go into global public health. It’s a big focus change from individual patient health to community health.”

Ruth Overlease, BA ’04, now a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh, also was a member of that initial group. She credits Project Dharamsala with sparking her passion to pursue medicine internationally.

“Passing begging children on the street and placing a few coins in a leper’s hand are incredibly moving things that seem unreal until you see them firsthand,” says Overlease. “I was confronted with the question: Would I be a bystander, or would I choose to take action?”

Overlease has since shadowed physicians in an African clinic and plans to return to Zambia for a rotation in a public hospital.

“A high percentage of our participants have gone on to focus on community development on both micro and macro levels,” Fee says. “They’re helping to create a more just society.”

Since China is unlikely to be swayed by the Free Tibet movement, service-learning administrators anticipate Project Dharamsala’s continuance.

“The Tibetans in exile are 130,000 people without a home,” Fee says. “Dharamsala is a temporary stopping point for many, for which they’re grateful, but Tibetans yearn to return to their homeland.”

Never in vain

“Our first evening here I visited the Dalai Lama’s temple right at sunset,” Hill wrote in a dispatch home. “As I stood there admiring the alpenglow on the high mountain peaks, someone tugged my sleeve and said, ‘Welcome back, do you remember me? I was taught English grammar by Todd and Sophie, and then later Sam was my teacher.’

“It was WangKho — whom Glenn and I do indeed remember,” Hill continued. “It was such a nice reinforcing message to receive right at the beginning of our service time here. The students really do make a difference, and they leave behind many thankful people.”

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.