American student Liam Kelly spent last summer in Himachal Pradesh, India on a study abroad program administered by Tulane University, New Orleans. He completed his final semester in Thimphu, Bhutan. In order to inspire others to travel and study in the Himalayas, we asked Liam some questions about his experiences.
What was your motivation for studying in the Himalayas? Did your study program go as expected?
My Philosophy and Psychology studies at Tulane piqued my interest in Buddhism, which took me down a path of study that integrates international development, environment conservation, and service to others. There are few places better to study Buddhism than India, and, in my opinion, nowhere better to study the connections between Buddhism, development, and environmental conservation than Bhutan.
It goes without saying that no good plan goes as expected. If things always go as expected, you’re not taking enough risks. I never expected to intern with the organizations I did, and I never expected to become close friends with a Tibetan Buddhist monk who has mentored my Buddhist studies.
Can you elaborate on your internships?
I interned with World Wildlife Fund Bhutan and the United Nations in Bhutan under the Resident Coordinator (RC), the head of the in-country team. Things have a funny way of working in Bhutan: I secured my WWF internship by hitchhiking to school, and my UN internship by going on a hike!
WWF Bhutan was a great opportunity, where I authored a literature review for the Forestry and Livelihood program. My internship with the UN was absolutely life changing, providing experience in a multilateral organization and mentorship from a senior UN official. Both of these opportunities have given me insight and experience in the field of international development.
What was the most striking thing you learned?
It might sound corny, but what resonates with me the most is to take risks, embrace uncertainty, and relentlessly pursue what you feel passionate about. For me, that’s doing what I can to better the lives of those less fortunate than myself.
How was your experience as a student in Bhutan different from that in the United States?
Bhutan was a feudal country until only a few decades ago. For most ‘chillips’ (white foreigners), feudalism is only something that exists in books. The cultural attitude that feudalism cultivates is one of total acceptance of authority. In the classroom, this means that the Western value of academic inquiry can be interpreted as rude or as a call for attention. As a Philosophy student who loves to ask questions, this was probably the biggest cultural hurdle I’ve ever come across.
Most visitors to Bhutan get a mere glimpse of Thimpu. What did you experience about Bhutanese culture and way of life?
The “Brand Bhutan” of Gross National Happiness makes many think Bhutan is a utopia. However, this is utter nonsense. This is a real place with real problems, just like everywhere else.
The most striking aspect of Bhutanese culture is that Bhutanese people are incredible hosts. They have the attitude that they’re always hosting you since you are a guest in their country. Even in my own apartment, my friends would still act as if they were my host! Such incredible kindness and generosity is rare these days.
What advice would you have for those who wish to study in Bhutan? How does one go about enrolling?
If you’re interested in environmental conservation or Buddhism, it’s a good choice. If you get bored easily, it’s probably not for you. Reach out to the International Relations Office of Royal Thimphu College, the School of Field Studies or the College of Natural Resources to enroll independently.
Please tell us anything else important for those traveling to Bhutan.
Be prepared to eat lots of chillis and rice, and don’t be afraid to eat with your hands (your right hand)! If you’re there in the Fall, go to the Highlander Festival in Gasa, where you might meet the King if you’re lucky.