Q&A: Tenzin Tsagong ’16 on Being Changed By a Summer in Dharamsala

Tenzin Tsagong ’16 with some of her students. Tsagong is fourth from the right, slightly in back

Tenzin Tsagong ’16 with her students. Tsagong is fourth from the right, slightly in back

This summer, Tenzin Tsagong ’16 traveled to Northern India to work for a nonprofit called Tibetan Women’s Association with funding from a Preston Public Interest Career grant from Bowdoin’s Career Planning office. She answered some questions about her experience with the association, which has been active since the Tibetan uprising in March of 1959, and provides women — many of whom have very little education — with leadership and vocational skills, along with other training. In addition to their support for women, TWA also contributes greatly to the Tibetan struggle.

What inspired you to travel to India this summer and work for the Tibetan Women’s Association?
Tenzin Tsagong: I wanted to travel to Dharamsala, a hill station located in Himachal Pradesh in Northern India, specifically because outside of Tibet, this is the central hub of all Tibetan cultural, religious, and political affairs. Being a Tibetan, and having never visited Dharamsala before, all I knew while planning my summer was that it didn’t matter which organization I worked for as long as it was in Dharamsala. So I looked up some NGOs, of which there are plenty of in Dharamsala, most of which are related to Tibet issues, either political or social. A family friend recommended that I look into TWA.

What are your duties there?

TT: My two main projects were teaching English, computer and math to nine Tibetan women who are all participants of the 18-month Stitches of Tibet program. I’ve also been working on a report on the Middle Way Policy, a position that the Tibetan government in exile has established which asserts that the Tibetan exile-government seeks only meaningful autonomy for Tibet, not independence.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far?
TT: Through SOT, I have gotten the opportunity to interact with so many incredible women who had the courage to take up an 18-month program to learn English and tailoring. So just seeing the effort they put into bettering their lives and their children’s was really inspiring. Through my experience with teaching English for the first time, I see just how difficult it is to teach and have gained so much respect for this profession. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if I didn’t speak some Tibetan. I also learned so much from working on a report on the Middle Way Policy. Through this extensive research, I’ve come to realize just how complex resolving the issue of Tibet is and the many different perspectives one must look at to understand the full scope of the issue. I think having gained the knowledge that I have on the political issues, it has raised my confidence in advocating for the Tibetan struggle and I hope to use it to spread awareness on the Tibet issue.

What has surprised you most?
TT: Honestly, I’m just surprised at just how much I have learned and how much there is still so much left to learn. I plan on continuing to keep up with news on the Tibetan issues and make sure I remain informed.

How do you think you’ve changed from this experience?
TT: Not only was this summer important for me to grow professionally and develop new practical skills, but it was also important for me on a personal level. Being a Tibetan and working for an organization that is run by Tibetan women for Tibetan women was so inspiring. Just through my TWA internship, I think I am so much more aware socially and politically on Tibetan issues. Knowing more about the complexity of the Tibetan political struggle and getting a better understanding has rejuvenated my interests in spreading the issue of Tibet. I hope to start a Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) chapter at Bowdoin to use it as a platform to spread awareness of the Tibetan struggle to the Bowdoin and greater Maine community.

Did Bowdoin help prepare you for this summer? If so, how?
TT: Yes. Definitely. Just from my one year at Bowdoin, I have learned so much. The community service experience I’ve gained through the Mckeen Center certainly helped. Volunteering as a classroom aid at Portland Adult Education gave me the opportunity to see how a veteran ESL teacher can effectively teach a lesson. Developing my writing and critical thinking skills certainly helped in my research on the Middle Way Report.

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