Campus News

October 12, 2010

Tibetan studies abroad program celebrates 10 years

Stephen “Pii” Dominick was well on his way to becoming a physicist when his decision to participate in the Emory Tibetan Studies Program in 2003 changed his life. The Emory student had always had an interest in Buddhism, but held off taking classes in the subject until he got into the program in Dharamsala, India, the capital of the Tibetan exile community.

“I guess I didn’t really have a strong sense of what I was going to encounter, but I knew I was interested in the subject,” Dominick says.  “Just a few weeks into the program, all  of a sudden there was the Dalai Lama sharing his teachings with us. It was totally surreal. And it totally changed my focus.”

And so it has been for many students. This is the program’s 10th anniversary.  To celebrate, 40 of its 120 students are coming back to campus for a reunion during the Oct. 17-19 visit of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama as Emory Presidential Distinguished Professor.

The study abroad program was the first manifestation of the Emory-Tibet Partnership in Dharamsala, according to Director Tara Doyle.  She launched the program in 2001 after The Coca-Cola Company gave Emory a grant to help internationalize the campus.

“We didn’t feel the students were going abroad enough, particularly to nontraditional locations,” says Doyle, a senior lecturer in religion.

The spring semester Emory Tibetan Studies Program in Dharamsala – there is a second, a summer Tibetan Mind/Body Sciences program — is now considered one of the leading study-abroad efforts in the country. Students study language, Tibetan culture, religious practice and they have an opportunity to do Tibet-related research in the community. The semester-long program fully immerses American students in the life of the Tibetan exile community.

Emory partners with the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala to facilitate the study-abroad partnership and exchange program. Institute Assistant Director Geshe Kalsang Damdul notes how both groups of students, through studying and living together, “have been able to learn each others’ way of life, social, culture and educational systems firsthand.”

“In this kind of human-to-human interaction,” he says, “both sides learned the importance of human values of kindness, hospitality, tolerance and openness as key to becoming happy individuals and good and responsible citizens of the world.”

It is that immersion that makes it so remarkable, says Doyle.

“When you are exposed to  refugees  who risk life and limb to come into exile to be educated, you recognize what an enormous sacrifice it is to learn. It blows our students’ minds,” Doyle says.

Emory Law student Elizabeth Ura agrees.  She enrolled in the semester abroad as an undergraduate in 2005.  “The program shows students how important it is to be a part of the global community,” Ura says. “Plus, living in a refugee community, you certainly learn not to take things for granted.”

Ura was so moved by the program, she decided to go back as a teaching assistant this past year. One of the more memorable occasions was the audience she got as a student with the Dalai Lama. “It’s almost overwhelming,” she says. “To be in a class with just him and 20 or so people and to get to ask him questions — that kind of access is amazing.”

Dominick has been back to Dharamsala four times, which his helped his work studying — not physics, but comparative philosophy for his PhD. “You can visit the [Tibetan] community as a traveler, but you aren’t as easily integrated into the community as we were,” he says. “What I encountered — intellectually, emotionally and spiritually — profoundly changed me.”  

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