Nepali student inspires a wider world perspective

As Dechen Dolma Lama prepares to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in child and youth care, she recalls the time and effort spent just getting to Vancouver Island from Nepal by way of Zurich, Switzerland.

Gaining entrance to a sponsoring boarding school is a minor miracle for any Nepali girl, she says. The cultural norms at home favour education for boys and early marriage for girls. Lama, however, was an outstanding student. She would go on to be one of four of 840 students to earn a full two-year scholarship with Inter-Community School, an international college based in Zurich, Switzerland.

Today, when asked her age, Lama pauses. “I’m 25 but, at home, we follow the lunar calendar,” accounting for a difference of 275 fewer days. Home is Lho village in the Nubri region situated about 12,000 ft. above sea level where people follow the sun and the moon to track time.

The serenity of this place belies the hardships locals face as seasonal nomads and subsistence farmers. Parents work the fields while children forage for firewood, tend livestock and subsist on two meals a day, “if they are lucky.” Butter tea and a bread of roasted barley flour are diet basics.

Now the eldest of six, Lama’s older sister died of hunger. She explains how mortality is very high among infants, children, and youth. “There is no sanitation, no healthcare, no electricity, no running water. To access the nearest road is a five-day walk.” While most cannot read or write, save for nuns and priests, the rural Nepali people are genius in subsisting within such a meagre, challenging, yet enduring environment.

Lama is living testament to this perseverance having worked hard labour as a child yet persuading family and local monks to let her attend school. As is the way, she has vowed to return and help her community and her school as payment for the privilege of her education.

While the move to the private school in Zurich was a major change in every sense, Lama recalls her true test was adjusting to a European diet. Used to foods rich in spice, Dechen found Western food bland. “My host family was very kind and helped me to diversify my meals.”

Her greatest upset, though, was seeing people leave food on their plate. “People take more than they need,” she says quietly. Witnessing excessive over-consumption in Europe and here in Canada, she said, “This was very difficult.”

Yet, experiencing Western culture is all part of her learning, says Lama, adding that she found her university education even more transformative. “One begins by learning about themselves,” she says of her time with UVic’s School of Child and Youth Care. “Reflection is essential to understanding how things impact you. This changed my perspective. Before, I generalized. Now, I see life from a different angle and am much more open-minded.”

Lama hopes to return to UVic, earn a master’s degree, and work with families new to Canada.

“Dechen’s journey to UVic is both a riveting story and a humbling reminder for those of us who complain about first world problems,” says Jin-Sun Yoon, a teaching professor in Child and Youth Care. Recalling Lama’s influence in the classroom, Yoon says, “She rejects sympathy. Instead, she inspires those around her to widen their world view.”

Author: Kate Hildebrandt

            October 4 2017