Every winter since 2002, a group of DU students has made a trip to Dharamsala, a city in India’s Himalayan region that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
International Service Learning (ISL) Dharamsala, one of DU’s longest-running international programs, engages undergraduate and graduate students across disciplines. While in Dharamsala, students learn about the Tibetan sovereignty debate firsthand and hear from former political prisoners and Tibetan advocates about their experiences, which often included torture and hard labor.
It’s a trip that nearly every returning student describes as the most impactful experience of his or her time at DU, says Jordan Farrar, the program’s coordinator. “Students come away from this program understanding what it means to be a global citizen,” she says.
Tiffany Wilk (BA ’15), who was a senior majoring in international studies and political science during her 2014 trip, says the experience forced her to examine moral and ethical issues. “This trip helped me work through the delicate issue of ‘voluntourism’—students traveling abroad for volunteer causes,” she says. “And the discussions we had as a group helped us all to process the incredibly difficult and painful things we were seeing on a daily basis.”
The students begin confronting those delicate issues during fall quarter in the course that prefaces the trip. Tibet and the Power of Nonviolence is taught by Farrar and Alan Gilbert, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. As part of the class, students complete a research project relevant to their academic interests and to the course topic. In her project, Wilk used Tibet as a basis for comparison in her research on the history of the Palestinian movement for human rights and freedom.
When fall quarter ends, the students head for Dharamsala, where they spend three weeks immersed in Tibetan history and culture. Kristin Kirlew-Bent (MA ’15) participated in the course during her second year in the Korbel School’s Global Finance Trade and Economic Integration program. While in Dharamsala, she worked at the Gamru Village School, which serves the city’s underprivileged Indian children. “My responsibility was to plan lessons, review previously taught information and grade assignments,” she says. “However, I feel like my most important responsibility was having positive, joyful interactions with the children, many of whom come from poverty and face domestic abuse.”
The DU group typically spends most of its afternoons at Gu Chu Sum, an organization that supports former political prisoners seeking refuge in India after fleeing Tibet. Students meet individually with the newly arrived Tibetans as language partners, listening to their stories and helping them practice English.
“One of the most important roles I had as a student volunteer was to listen,” Kirlew-Bent says. “The Tibetan people wanted us to know the struggle they have faced — and continue to face — and share it with others so that acknowledgement, awareness and support can be brought to their cause.”
Students benefit from the chance to put their learning into practice, Farrar says. “That’s really what service learning is—it’s taking that classroom piece and putting it into practice in some kind of community.”
The trip may only last three weeks, but students say they are profoundly changed by their time in Dharamsala.
“The most significant aspect of the trip was studying a particular social justice movement, and then being on the ground with the movers and shakers of that movement,” Wilk says. “We studied Tibetan nonviolence and met daily with representatives from various advocacy groups experiencing the movement daily. That’s an experience you never forget.”
Wilk says that when she returned from Dharamsala, she was more committed to her activist work in Denver. “This trip certainly helped me to have a more balanced and more well-rounded worldview.”