A beautiful journey


Flying into Paro, Bhutan, you go through a blanket of clouds that slowly dissolves as mountains emerge, cradling the emerald lushness of a valley dotted with colorful buildings. Even before your feet touch the ground, Bhutan takes your breath away. And, once you are there, it starts working on your heart and mind, say students who have participated in Wheaton’s study abroad program in Bhutan.

“When we first flew over Paro, I was utterly speechless, and almost in tears. It’s undoubtedly the most beautiful place I have ever been,” says James Elliott ’15, one of six students who spent the fall 2012 semester in Bhutan.

Months after the experience, with his feet firmly planted in Norton, Mass., Elliott’s mind is still there. “Seeing the happiness and contentment of Bhutanese citizens, who have a very simple lifestyle in such stark contrast to how most Americans are brought up, really has expanded my worldview and solidified my convictions about how I live my life,” he says.

“One man started a conversation with me while I was waiting on the street, and it ended with him offering me a job, a place in his home and food for the duration of time that I would work for him. Each time someone gave us a ride that was clearly out of their way and refused any compensation, or helped us find a destination across town by personally escorting us there, I thought to myself I would feel so proud to be a part of this culture.”

The psychology major now plans to seek an additional independent major in contemplative studies, saying the Bhutan experience intensified his interest in psychology and sparked a desire for a more holistic approach to his studies. “I want my education to be more than a means to a monetary end. I want it to benefit as many people as possible.”

That kind of lasting impact is one that the program creators and coordinators have aimed for since the program was first launched in 2010. The Bhutan study abroad program is a partnership between Wheaton and Royal Thimphu College (RTC), the first private institution of higher learning there. The official partnership between the two colleges began when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2009, capping off months of talks involving administrators and faculty from both RTC and Wheaton. RTC officials were seeking to create a liberal arts experience similar to Wheaton’s, and Wheaton was seeking to expand international experiences for students here.

Wheaton’s connection with Bhutan has existed since 1999, when the nation’s current king, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was a Wheaton student (from fall 1999 to summer 2001). Over the years, several other Bhutanese students also have attended Wheaton.

Tsewang Nidup explaining prayer wheels at the 7th C. Kyichu Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, in Paro, to (L-R) Sarah Mitsinikos, Ben Gagnon, Catherine Perkins, Nick Emard, and Tianna Lall

Wheaton is the only U.S. college or university that offers a semester-long credit-bearing program in Bhutan. Not only does the program provide the opportunity for Wheaton students to learn in one of the most isolated places in the world, where few foreigners get to visit, but it also allows them to truly live the culture as members of the Bhutanese community.

Because of the program’s uniqueness, last May Wheaton was awarded the 2012 prize in the “Innovative New Program–Study Abroad” category of a competition sponsored by GoAbroad.com, a web-based resource for international study and travel. Hundreds of nominations were submitted for eight contest categories, including awards for study abroad programs as well as international internships and volunteer experiences. Entries were judged by a group of international educators on the basis of quality, originality and creativity.

As of fall 2012, for the first time students from colleges other than Wheaton are eligible to apply for the fall or the recently added spring semester.

Bhutan, the only remaining Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, is often called “the last Shangri-la” because of its dramatic, pristine landscape. A remote, landlocked nation in South Asia, it is not easy to get to. Wheaton students flew from Boston to Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok to Paro.

Bhutan didn’t have roads until the 1960s and was one of the last countries to introduce television when it lifted its ban on television broadcasting and the Internet in 1999. It held its first elections in 2008, transitioning from a monarchy to a constitutional democracy. Now, amid rapid political, economic and social changes, the nation is committed to preserving its unspoiled environment and maintaining its Buddhist cultural tradition, as part of its national policy of Gross National Happiness.

Interacting with Bhutanese children
Sarah Collins ’13 and Raphael Sweet ’12 interact with Bhutanese children

Under the guidance of a Wheaton faculty member, students take four courses during the semester, including “Contemporary Bhutan Society,” “Bhutanese Language and Culture,” one course with RTC students in political science, economics, environmental studies, or sociology, and “Practicum in Bhutan”—a course for which students work at a local service organization or government agency. In addition, students take four trips to different parts of the country and visit many natural and historic sites. The students also live in dorms with Bhutanese students, with whom many have developed lasting friendships.

The Bhutan program perfectly fits into Wheaton’s commitment to helping to create global citizens by providing a culturally infused curriculum, encouraging study abroad, and offering faculty-led trips, says Professor of Psychology Bianca Cody Murphy, the Bhutan program co-coordinator, along with Associate Professor of Anthropology Bruce Owens.  Murphy was the first resident director in 2010; Owens is the current resident director.

“Students learn about another culture by being immersed in it. In addition, we’re also creating a reciprocally beneficial program for our students and faculty, and for RTC students and faculty,” says Murphy.

Tshering Dolkar, the RTC international relations officer responsible for program logistics in Bhutan, agrees, and adds that the program has broad implications.

Trying on Ghos and Kiras-Thimphu
Wheaton students try on ghos and kiras, Bhutan’s national dress for men and women (respectively) in Thimphu. From left to right: Benjamin Kragen ’14, Alec Jeannotte ’15, Ana Brenes-Coto ’15, Carolyn Decker ’14, Ariel Eaton ’14, Sara Mitsinikos ’15, Catherine Perkins ’14, Tianna Lall ’14 and Benjamin Gagnon ’15.

“It’s not just a partnership between the two institutions, but also between the two nations,” Dolkar says. “There are numerous benefits to the Bhutanese students and the faculty in terms of exposure to not just the American culture but also the American system of education. As the world becomes one big global village, it is very important for each citizen to understand and respect each other…. This program promotes tolerance, patience and respect for each other, despite differing cultural and religious beliefs and backgrounds, which are very important traits in becoming a global citizen. The presence of the Wheaton students on campus gives the Bhutanese students the constant reminder of the world beyond the campus and Bhutan, thereby motivating them to work harder and achieve the skills and experiences they will need to be successful as they enter the job market upon graduation.”

So far, a total of 36 Wheaton students from various majors have been selected for the program. Professors Murphy and Owens are pleased that the Wheaton program is now accepting students from other colleges and universities.

“This is a very intensive study abroad experience. It’s not for everybody,” Owens points out. “We want students who are sensitive and appreciative of cultural differences, and have a capacity and flexibility to adjust to the unexpected. We want students who are really interested in an experience that will probably change their lives.”