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Tibetan Students Call Visit “One of the Greatest Things”

By Amy Mayer

Dawa Yangzom ’08 and her parents marvel at the fact that she has traveled from her home in the Tibetan exile community in Dalhousie, India, to Smith—and only now will she experience her first audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Further, Yangzom says, her parents can’t help but point out that Yangzom isn’t a particularly pious person.

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“For them, he is a demigod,” she says, “no, not a demigod, a god.” But he’s also a political and temporal leader—and because they passed on to their daughter not just Tibet’s religion but its culture and language as well, she is absolutely thrilled that the Dalai Lama is speaking here.

“For me this is probably one of the greatest things that could ever happen,” says Yangzom, who is attending Smith as an international student receiving a four-year scholarship from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation.

Tibetan students Dawa Yangzom ’08, left, and Tenzin Dechen ’10 look forward to May 9 and hope to be among those performing for the Dalai Lama during his daylong visit to the Smith campus.

Yangzom, an economics and international relations major, says that at Smith she has met many American students who are curious about Tibet.

“They want to derive as much as possible about our culture, our language, our religion,” she says. Despite her involvement as treasurer of Smith College Students for a Free Tibet, though, she does feel that many American students lack political awareness about the country, which China has occupied since 1959. Many students “dodge or ignore the political aspect, but they’re very interested in the culture.”

Tenzin Dechen ’10 grew up in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is located. Unlike Yangzom, who attended a Catholic grade school, Dechen went to a Tibetan Children’s Village School where the curriculum featured the language and culture of the country her father fled as a boy. The network of schools, which serves refugee and orphan children from Tibet as well as Tibetan children born in exile, has close ties to the Dalai Lama. For decades, his sister served as president of the Tibetan Children’s Village. Dechen says he often paid visits to her school.

“I do cherish a lot about my Tibetan school education,” Dechen says, including those events. Dechen has another connection to the Dalai Lama. Following Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a spiritual leader names a child. Dechen received her name from the Dalai Lama. “Tenzin” is both his name and the name he passes on to all the children he names. “Dechen,” the second name, is gender specific.

“Anybody who wants their child named simply approaches the (Dalai Lama’s) office,” Dechen explains. “The (second) names are all printed in advance on a card. Depending upon the child’s sex, a name is drawn out. That’s how I got my name.”

Dechen, who plans to major in biochemistry, says her parents had some advice for her when she told them she’d be attending an audience with the Dalai Lama at Smith. They reminded her to address him only “in very good Tibetan, formal Tibetan.”

These two Smith students both studied at international schools—Yangzom in England and Dechen near Mumbai, India—for their last two years of high school. They say the transition at that stage seemed more difficult than coming to Smith. Dechen adds that she got an e-mail from Yangzom before coming to Northampton, which helped her feel welcome. The two are among five Tibetans currently studying at Smith.

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