When Dasho Tenzing Yonten P’12 was an undergraduate studying mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, he was often asked about his plans after graduation. When he made it clear he intended to return to his native Bhutan, he found the answer surprised many people.
“They’d say, ‘Why do you want to go back?’” Yonten recalled.
But his reason was simple.
“One of the beautiful things about Bhutan is that you really feel you can make a difference,” he said. “It is so small and it is so untouched in that way that if you have a good idea, you can have a purpose, you can achieve something. For me, this was a big motivating factor to come back.”
Speaking to a room full of students and faculty at Ellison Lecture Hall on September 16, the founder and director of Wheaton partner Royal Thimpu College shared many other beautiful attributes of Bhutan, a small country of about 800,000 people located between India and China: its fascinating geography that rises from sea level to nearly 25,000 feet within a 100-mile stretch, its forward-thinking monarchs and relatively new adoption of democracy and the way the nation’s prosperity is measured in Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product.
He talked about Bhutan’s interesting history, starting with the country’s self-imposed isolation prior to 1950 and continuing with more recent developments including Bhutan’s first National Assembly election in 2008 and the creation and continued growth of secular schools, from primary to college level.
As founder and director of one of those institutions, Yonten strongly values education, and its ability to spark and help people adapt to change. From the age of six, he studied at a boarding school in India, returning to Bhutan to attend the Royal University of Bhutan’s Sherubtse College and going on to earn a B.S. from UC Berkeley and an M.B.A. from Yale University.
It was in part his experience at U.S. schools that inspired Yonten to establish a new university back home, an alternative to Bhutan’s traditional textbook-based, exam-centered educational system. He wanted to provide an education to Bhutanese students that would “allow them to juggle conflicting ideas and come to their own conclusions,” an approach to learning that would emphasize critical thinking and analysis.
“Students even now, even at the college level, they want to be told what the right answer is. They respond to the instructor by asking, ‘What’s the correct answer? What do you want me to say?’ rather than thinking for themselves,” Yonten said. “This is one of the big motivations that I had when I was thinking of what we should do differently in higher education in Bhutan.”
Royal Thimpu College, based in the capital city of Thimpu, opened to students in 2009. One year, later it welcomed its first group of Wheaton students, the inaugural class participating in a semester-long study abroad program that continues to this day. Currently, the seventh Wheaton group is in Bhutan, and the eighth group is heading there in February. And for the past three semesters, students from the University of Connecticut, Bates College, Bard College and Hamilton College have joined Wheaton students in the program.
“Through Dasho and Royal Thimpu College we were the first college in the world to offer a study abroad program in the Kingdom of Bhutan because of our longstanding and ever-growing connections,” said Mark Hoesly, dean of Wheaton’s Center for Global Education. “Wheaton students and faculty members have the incredible opportunity to live and study in this fascinating corner of the world.”
Today, Royal Thimpu College has about 920 local students enrolled in its three-year degree program, plus 220 continuing education students who take evening courses in a four-year program.
The college seeks to “set inspiring standards for education by challenging students to achieve their full potential and to become independent life-long learners,” Yonten said, and “to be a crucible of new ideas and knowledge that serves to enrich people’s lives and enhance the welfare of society.”
Another way to say it: “We’ve been rocking the boat a lot, to put it in the words of some of the other university administrators that we work with,” Yonten said.
Along with educating, Bhutan’s next generations, Royal Thimpu College is committed to adding to the country’s social and political conversations. In 2008, the year of Bhutan’s first National Assembly election, the college hosted a debate with the heads of five political parties—the first event of its kind in Bhutan.
“We feel that beyond the campus, beyond the students, our mandate is to reach out,” Yonten said.
Developing relationships with other institutions and visiting Wheaton—his first visit since attending commencement for his daughter Tenzin Wangmo ’12—are part of that outreach effort.
On Monday, Yonten met for the first time with President Dennis Hanno (and reportedly discussed going one-on-one on the basketball court in the near future). Since arriving on campus on September 13 he has also met with Provost Linda Eisenmann and other administrators, faculty members and students. On September 19, he is leaving campus but making other stops in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, southern California and New York City before returning to Bhutan.
In his introduction of Yonten during Tuesday’s talk, Associate Professor of Anthropology Bruce Owens, who co-runs the Wheaton/Thimpu College Partnership Program, referred to the speaker as “an educator, engineer and entrepreneur,” words he felt “accurately describe Dasho’s capacity to recognize a need, envision a way to fill it and muster the financial, intellectual and social resources necessary to bring his vision to a reality.”
“That reality is Royal Thimpu College, whose effects are already extending far beyond its campus and its students,” Owens continued. “Wheaton College is only one of the places that has felt its impact.”