Investing in Tibet’s Greatest Resource

Kunchok Gelek & Rigdrol Jikar, TBF senior staff

With funding for education provided to over 1,300 Tibetan students each year, The Bridge Fund’s scholarship program has formed an impressive community of alumni. Creating opportunities to pursue specialized training and higher education—key aims of TBF’s education sector programs—has enabled Tibetan students to follow their promise across the world and, importantly, back again. Students supported through international training programs and tertiary degrees have returned home with skills, experience and a new perspective on how to be of most benefit to their communities. Across the Tibetan Plateau, scholarship alumni can be found advancing a range of initiatives that improve livelihoods, preserve culture and protect the environment. TBF’s work is fortunate to be led by many such individuals. Rigdrol Jikar and Kunchok Gelek, two of TBF’s longest-serving staff members, are examples of how greater access to education can expand what individuals envision for both themselves and their communities.

Rigdrol and Kunchok’s experience of early education was characteristic of that of many young people on the Plateau. Though the state has made it possible for primary and secondary schools to be within the reach of students in many remote areas, the quality of education is often poor. Kunchok grew up in a small semi-nomadic community in southwestern Qinghai. At the age of eight, he and his family moved from his village so they could be closer to a newly-constructed government school, the first in their region. But with a curriculum built on rote memorization and classes instructed by insufficiently trained teachers, Kunchok found it difficult to learn. “Our mathematics teacher only spoke Chinese so I had no clue what the contents of the class were,” he remembers. Rigdrol, who is from a nomadic area of southern Qinghai, had a similar experience when he began school as a boarding student at the age of nine. “Most of my classmates dropped out of school because the conditions were so poor,” Rigdrol says. Despite challenges, both Kunchok and Rigdrol completed primary and secondary schooling with top marks and entered universities in Qinghai’s capital city of Xining.

For Rigdrol, determination to continue school was bolstered by his acceptance to the English Training Program (ETP), a project TBF has supported for over a decade. The ETP gives Tibetan students the opportunity to receive a secondary education with courses in English as well as such subjects as world history, sociology and literature. It was during the ETP that Rigdrol gained an introduction to community-based development through projects being implemented locally by his course instructors. “Being in the ETP was the first step of my career,” he reflects. “Carrying out development work in my home area became my goal.” In 2000, not long after his acceptance to university, Rigdrol began working for TBF. Utilizing his personal knowledge of nomadic areas, he helped lead TBF’s initiatives in rangeland issues and nomad community development. “I had clearer, stronger goals after implementing projects with TBF,” he explains. “My understanding of difficulties faced by Tibetan communities had grown and helped me envision a meaningful goal for my future.”

Graduation from Boston University, Rigdrol with his wife and daughter

Rigdrol’s ambition is to bring greater learning opportunities to nomadic areas of the Plateau; an objective that has led him back to school. TBF’s support has enabled Rigdrol to pursue a Master’s Degree in International Education Development at Boston University. Having recently graduated, Rigdrol will soon rejoin his team in Qinghai and help guide TBF’s projects in the areas of education and nomad community development. He will be able to contribute insights from his analysis of global educational policies and practices to his implementation of education programs on the Plateau. But Rigdrol also returns home with the broader perspective and self-reliance gained from his first experience outside of China. “The important process of living and adapting to life in a multicultural society is something that I couldn’t have experienced if I had not studied abroad,” he says.

Access to greater educational opportunities has made it possible for Rigdrol to realize the potential for impact in his career. But for many Tibetans entering the local job market from Chinese universities, options seem few. “My career goal was to become a government employee,” Kunchok recalls. “The choice was narrow—either become a government-paid teacher or administrative worker.” It was Kunchok’s pursuit of language skills—particularly his self-directed study of English—that led to opportunities with several international organizations and finally to work with TBF. In 2000, Kunchok joined TBF’s team, where his dedication to community-based development became clear. He took responsibility for a range of initiatives, including capacity building programs for local NGOs and the expansion of the ETP to reach youth who, much like himself as a student, live in underserved communities of the Plateau. Investing in his interest and growing knowledge of development methodology, TBF supported Kunchok through his completion of a Master’s Degree in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University. Having returned to his team in Qinghai in 2007, Kunchok now serves as TBF’s Pastoral Development Program Coordinator and has been instrumental in the development of nomadic herder cooperatives. In this role, he is sharing his experience by developing sustainable business models that utilize the resources of herder communities. “I hope to teach the tools and skills I learned to more people,” he says.

Kunchok and Rigdrol are among a small number of Tibetans on the Plateau who have had the

Kunchok leading a training for herder cooperative members in Qinghai

opportunity to pursue international postgraduate degrees; a number TBF aims to grow. As the Plateau continues to undergo rapid economic transformation, the livelihoods of Tibetan youth will become increasingly dependent on the level and quality of their education. Supporting access to international education and specialized training widens career path options and increases competivity. “The explosion of potential opportunities in various fields—those that come with learning analytical tools and improving communication skills—are among the most valuable assets of studying abroad,” Kunchok reflects. He also cites confidence and encouragement as two of the greatest assets that Tibetan students take home from their experiences. Immersion in settings of multicultural learning fosters insight: both professional and personal.

TBF has supported over 30 Tibetan students to receive Master’s Degrees in the US, Europe, and Asia and enabled a total of 720 students to graduate from the ETP. TBF’s scholarship program also makes it possible for students to participate in short-term international training programs in such areas as business development, economics, environmental resource management, and ecotourism. Professional development opportunities for TBF’s team continue this year with senior staff attending programs at Harvard University, London School of Economics and EDS Business School in Malaysia.

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