For the second year, Wheaton hosted a group of students and administrators from the Royal Thimphu College (RTC) in Bhutan for a two-week visit during which the visitors stayed on campus, attended classes and toured the area—taking in sights in New York City, Boston and Providence.
The visit is part of a unique partnership between Wheaton and RTC, the first private college in Bhutan. The college opened in 2009 and welcomed its first group of Wheaton students the following year, in a semester-abroad program that has continued biannually ever since.
“We would love to have Bhutanese students come here and have a similar experience, but it’s not possible for them to come for a whole semester at this point, so they come for two weeks,” said Gretchen Young, dean of the Center for Global Education. “The students live in the dorms with our students, eat at Chase, go to classes and attend student government meetings. They get to see how an American liberal arts college works.”
The RTC administrators, Associate Dean Samir Patel and Student Services Officer Budhi Mongar, met with faculty and staff on campus and accompanied the students on trips.
Four students were selected from the more than 1,000 who attend RTC and received scholarships to participate in the Wheaton exchange. They included seniors Sonam Tshering and Choening Delma Tenzin, who are both studying English and environmental studies; freshman Sonam Choden, who is studying environmental management; and freshman Yeshi Dema, who is studying political science and sociology. For all, it was their first visit to the United States.
Tshering said he was hoping to take what he learned through his experience at Wheaton and share it with others at his college.
“When you see students from Wheaton, they are going to Europe and everywhere. It’s a normal thing for them to travel. Many can. In our case, it’s something very, very special,” Tshering said.
Being selected for the Wheaton exchange is a real honor, Patel said.
“This will be a way for them to distinguish themselves as one of those people who have gained this experience, and I also see this as a way to distinguish our institution as one that is proud to be able to offer this opportunity to students,” he said. “It’s a motivating factor for other students to see that if they’re strong in their academics and contributions to college life that this is the kind of opportunity they can apply for in the future.”
One of the activities that most stood out to the students was attending Wheaton classes, which they found quite different from their courses in Bhutan.
“The classes here are very interactive and more hands-on,” Tshering said. “You don’t just study a subject theoretically; you also do it. At the film class I attended, there was a lecture in the first 40 minutes and then they took us down to the studio and we were actually filming something, with a director, a sound man, a cameraman—like when they shoot real films.”
Dema was impressed by the number of student-organized activities at Wheaton, including the Diversity Day discussions held on February 12. She also found the interactions between students and faculty to be different.
“In the classes, it’s more casual, whereas back in Bhutan it would be very formal with the teachers,” she said.
Outside of class, the group engaged with Wheaton students in extracurricular activities, such as soccer and basketball. RTC has a small but strong athletics program, with many students playing on national teams, according to Mongar.
Tenzin said she liked how Wheaton balances academics with athletics, allowing students to determine how best to divide their time between the two.
It was a busy two weeks, with the group spending time in New York City, visiting the Bhutanese consulate and the United Nations headquarters, among other places, and in Boston and Providence. They also spoke to school children in Mansfield, Mass. and at Wheaton’s Elisabeth Amen Nursery School, where they sang the American classic “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in Dzongkha, their native language.
The Wheaton-RTC partnership has had numerous benefits over the years for those who participate, said Associate Professor of Anthropology Bruce Owens, who is co-coordinator of the program.
“The most obvious benefit is that [faculty and staff] resident directors and students have a rare opportunity to witness a country with an extraordinarily rich culture and carefully protected environment that is negotiating development in unique ways that include restricting the number of people who can visit the country,” Owens said. “This is also a partnership, in which Wheaton students and faculty are afforded the opportunity to take part in that development process, both learning from their peers at RTC and modeling the kind of active learning and critical thinking that Wheaton fosters in its students.”
The program has also created a close community of current students and alumnae/i from both countries.
“Both our resident directors and our students are bonded by the experiences they have had there, and they willingly step up to the plate in marvelous ways in hosting our Bhutanese visitors,” Owens said.