Professors lead new programs in Bhutan, Guatemala

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Students learn about culture, policy while engaging in community outreach over summer. COURTESY PHOTO / KEVIN VOCE

This past summer, the College of William and Mary sponsored two study abroad programs to Bhutan and Guatemala. Religious Studies Chair Kevin Vose led seven students around religious sites in Bhutan with the intent of learning more about Buddhist culture, while Global Research Institute Director of Programs and Outreach David Trichler led another group of students to research development policy in Guatemala.

Vose’s group took four classes at the Royal University of Bhutan, where one of the professors served as a host for students. According to Vose, the classes were Himalayan Buddhism, Bhutanese History, Gross National Happiness, and Spirituality and Personal Transformation, the latter of which was taught by the president of the university.

Vose talked about the group’s experience at the College of Language and Culture Studies, which served as both a host to the students and a place of learning.

“The education we were getting was a traditional Bhutanese understanding of what Buddhism is and how it relates to daily life,” Vose said. “It was both excellent and could sometimes be a little bit of a challenge as far as teaching style. It wasn’t always a Western-style lecture presentation.”

Student Lauren Croissant ’20 described her experience with Bhutanese education as enriching and highly individual.

“Learning from monks deepened my understanding of course material because they were able to convey the information in a much more personal way,” Croissant said in email. “We got to learn about their experiences and learn about Buddhism from a different lens.”

“Learning from monks deepened my understanding of course material because they were able to convey the information in a much more personal way. We got to learn about their experiences and learn about Buddhism from a different lens.”

The traditional Bhutanese education differs in a fundamental way from the western-style education, Vose said.

“[At] William and Mary, we take very much a historical, critical approach to religion, whereas with two of our faculty there being monks themselves, they present Buddhism from the inside, as they see it, as they live it,” Vose said. “It’s very much presented as a more traditional, monastic-style education. They’re presenting basics of Buddhism as a Buddhist sees it, not as a historian sees it, or somebody from a disparate culture who’s grown up not believing Buddhism as true would present it. It’s very much done from the inside.”

The group formed strong connections with its Bhutanese hosts. According to Croissant, this helped enrichen their education.

“Not that I was expecting them to be unfriendly, but everyone I met seemed genuinely excited to talk to us about their history and culture over tea, offer us a meal, tell us about their experiences living in Bhutan, or ask us about life in the United States,” Croissant said in an email. “Not only were we able to see and learn about Buddhist culture, but we were able to connect on a more personal level because of our connection to our professor.”

Vose gave more specifics about the religious temples the members of his group visited during their time in Bhutan, which began out west at the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, to the former capital, Punakha Dzong.

“Dzong means fort, and Dzongs were sites of the religious and political authority … the most significant place we went in those first few days was Punakha Dzong, the first capital of Bhutan,” Vose said. “[Punakha Dzong] was built in the 17th century. It’s a massive fort, both in the sense of a defensive structure that housed the seat of government for the country and one of the most important monasteries of the country.”

Vose also expanded on the concept of Gross National Happiness, which is a development metric used in Bhutan. According to Vose, Bhutan sees western nations as ones that prioritize material development.

“[Bhutan’s] critique is that maybe material development in it of itself doesn’t provide human happiness,” Vose said. “They acknowledge that material development is important, and so it is one of what’s called the four pillars of Gross National Happiness. … The others tend to emphasize preservation of what’s unique to Bhutan, mainly Buddhism and Bhutanese culture. The fear they have is that material development in addition to not providing happiness might tend to compete with more traditional Bhutanese values.”

On the other side of the globe, Trichler described how he taught developmental policy to his students while in Guatemala.

“We’re thinking about development, but what we’re really thinking about is how does a country and its community and its citizens move to have better options, more economic power, better quality of life,” Trichler said. “… [I]n general, if we think about development as having opportunities, and the ability to have better lives for ourselves, then the policies that we use to pursue that are really important, because it leads to different outcomes, and that’s where we place the emphasis.”

Trichler talked about the effects the trips had on the students that were impossible to achieve in a typical classroom setting.

“When I was talking with Jorge, [native] or when I was in Maria’s home [native] learning about how they manage their household finances, or how they think about crop developments, or how they manage uncertainty and risk, you know it’s those conversations that they’re having in those homes, or in the farmlands,” Trichler said. “… Those are the conversations and experiences that stick.”

Noah Scruggs ’19 said that Trichler’s program helped him understand the role of resource access and its impact on development policy.

“While in the communities, I learned that development policy is all about ensuring access to essential resources, education and the application of those resources and education to create sustainable communities backed by strong economic fundamentals,” Scruggs said in an email.

Trichler stressed the diversity of students on the trip in terms of major, field of study and background, and how it enriched their experiences.

“It was great to have such a differing background of people. Typically, I have a few people from government or econ, or international relations, but here we had people from finance, or from biology, or from mathematics, and they brought such an interesting and different perspective to the class,” Trichler said. “Being together in a different environment brings you closer together as a group and makes the sharing of unique experiences and background easier in a way. One of the international students said they had never felt more part of America than they did in Guatemala.”

As a finance major, Scruggs also said that it was valuable to have students of different fields of study on the trip, especially when working alongside an organization like CHOICE Humanitarian, which focuses on creating sustainable communities.

“Working on the ground in Guatemala with the CHOICE Humanitarian program, I learned that my understanding of Finance is essential in development policy, just as my classmates studying International Relations and Biology and Marine Science provided essential perspectives necessary for understanding development policy,” Scruggs said in an email. “The variety of students on my trip provided me and the rest of my classmates with a multidimensional perspective that can only be achieved when tapping into the resources of people from all walks of life.”

Trichler reflected on the quick pace at which students developed connections on their trip, particularly with the local team of the nonprofit that they worked alongside.

“One thing that surprised me and the students, because two weeks is not a long time, but how strongly and quickly they developed friendships,” Trichler said. “… Cross-cultural ties came out really strongly, in a way that I’m hoping will be universal for future groups as well.”

“One thing that surprised me and the students, because two weeks is not a long time, but how strongly and quickly they developed friendships.”

Scruggs talked about the strong relationships he solidified while in Guatemala, and how it changed him as a person.

“I developed such a strong love for the people in the communities that we visited, and I found a close group of friends in the classmates who went with me,” Scruggs said. “I would have never expected it to teach me the value of keeping a positive attitude, depending on others when you need support and the value of giving up control and being patient enough to wait for things to work out.”