…𝑨𝒖𝒔𝒕𝒓𝒂𝒍𝒊𝒂𝒏 𝒔𝒕𝒖𝒅𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒔 𝒄𝒉𝒐𝒐𝒔𝒆 𝒂𝒏 𝒆𝒙𝒕𝒆𝒏𝒅𝒆𝒅 𝒔𝒕𝒂𝒚, 𝒑𝒓𝒐𝒎𝒑𝒕𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒂 𝒔𝒉𝒊𝒇𝒕 𝒊𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑩𝒉𝒖𝒕𝒂𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒆 𝒆𝒅𝒖𝒄𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏𝒂𝒍 𝒍𝒂𝒏𝒅𝒔𝒄𝒂𝒑𝒆
By Sonam Choki & Sonam Deki
In a notable departure from the traditional trajectory of global education, two 16-year-old Australian students, Owen Chester Ringrose and Archie Rae Chandler-Lee, are breaking new ground by choosing Bhutan as their destination for academic pursuits. This choice redirects their focus to the distinctive educational landscape that Bhutan has to offer, challenging the prevailing narrative where it is more common for Bhutanese students to seek educational experiences abroad.
Setting a precedent at Educating for Lifelong Citizenship (ELC) High School, Owen and Archie commenced their academic journey on July 26, 2023. Their enrollment marks a shift in the international student demographic at ELC, which currently boasts a diverse cohort of 10 students from around the globe, including the United States, India, Italy, and now, Australia. This influx of international scholars is reshaping the cultural tapestry of ELC, fostering an environment that transcends geographical boundaries.
The introduction of Owen and Archie not only enriches the school’s international community but also signals a departure from the norm. As Bhutanese students traditionally seek educational opportunities overseas, the decision of these Australian students to immerse themselves in the Bhutanese educational experience prompts a reevaluation of conventional academic pathways.
They are undertaking an extended five-month stay, residing on campus as residents. This duration is noteworthy as the school historically hosted students for shorter durations, such as in exchange programs or for a week, and at most, for two weeks.
Deki Choden, Principal of ELC, noted, “They display a genuine curiosity about Bhutanese culture, actively showing interest and seeking clarification on various aspects.” She added, “Given their age of 16, their level of maturity is quite impressive. Their passion for travel, places, and Buddhism reflects adult interests, making them quite special. Now that the boys are here, it presents an excellent opportunity for both us and the school to shed light on the unique aspects of Bhutan as a Gross National Happiness (GNH) country. As Bhutanese natives born and raised here, we often overlook the abundant blessings that Bhutan has. Through the eyes of these boys, we gain a fresh perspective and a renewed appreciation for the richness of our country. Their presence in ELC serves as a catalyst for us to recognize and celebrate the unique elements that make Bhutan special.”
“To assess whether we meet their expectations, we ask them to provide a happiness rating, and they consistently rate us 10/10. This indicates their genuine satisfaction, and I believe the blend of academics, cultural immersion, and an adventure contributes to their happiness. For international students like them, we offer a robust set of offerings. Regarding extracurricular activities, we don’t make decisions unilaterally; instead, we involve the boys in discussions to tailor these activities based on their preferences.”
“In terms of challenges, the boys generally exhibit great respect for Bhutanese culture and its way of life. While they might miss Western food as teenagers, we make efforts to address their preferences by offering a variety of non-Bhutanese cuisines once a week. They actively engage in learning about Buddhism and other cultural teachings to immerse themselves in the Bhutanese way of life. I believe this presents an excellent opportunity that we should capitalize on,” she added.
The principal further added, “Given the recent mass exodus, particularly to Australia, and considering Bhutan’s small size, it raises concerns. Creating enabling and favorable conditions can encourage people to return. The fact that these two students had the courage to venture into a country they knew little about, aside from seeing it as magical, and staying for an extended period speaks volumes. It is our responsibility to respond to such needs and make them feel welcomed.”
Embarking on a semester of study in Bhutan is a transformative experience for students like Owen Chester Ringrose and Archie Rae Chandler-Lee. Susan Terravecchia, Owen’s mother, recounted the initial reservations and challenges they faced, from doubts about feasibility to concerns about expenses and paperwork. However, overcoming these hurdles, they discovered that the English language instruction in Bhutanese schools aligned well with their academic pursuits.
Susan Terravecchia said, “He has been expressing his interest in Bhutan for quite some time. He is deeply intrigued by the world around him. Initially, we thought that such an experience would not be possible. Another major concern was the expense, and we were also daunted by the amount of paperwork needed before we could go. Despite these hurdles, we were able to make it happen. The fact that English is the language of instruction in Bhutanese schools was a huge draw, allowing the boys to spend a semester in Bhutan. In fact, the subjects learned at ELC School closely align with those taught here. During their free time, they have been able to design some electives with Madam Deki, who has been most helpful, enabling them to choose things such as Dzongkha, Buddhism, Bhutanese culture, wellbeing, and other subjects not available here. His time in Bhutan has already had a positive impact on his perspective of the world around him. Traveling from a place like Sydney, Australia, to a country like Bhutan, and attending a school like ELC, is quite different from a high school in Sydney. It is a unique experience for a 16-year-old. I believe this has opened his eyes to a different way of living, and he seems to have matured greatly. Additionally, I think the cultural component of his experience has been phenomenal. The school has organized numerous trips that closely align with what he is studying.”
Similarly, Amanda Lee, the mother of Archie Rae Chandler-Lee, shared the same sentiment, “We were very excited about Archie Rae Chandler-Lee’s choice to study in a culturally rich country like Bhutan. When I heard about the country and conducted research on it, I felt this should be the place he goes. He is very mature and is raising money through part-time work, family and friends’ donations. Going there will make him more independent. Several influential Australian individuals have also donated and supported him to raise money. I believe his confidence, social skills, and exposure to different experiences are helping him lead an independent life.”
Tshewang Loday, vice principal of ELC reflects on the significance of Bhutan’s education system, noting the arrival of students from larger nations as a testament to its appeal. He highlights the enduring commitment of Bhutanese parents, a stark contrast to the independent efforts demonstrated by the Australian students who have worked and saved to support themselves.
Tshewang Loday said, “Addressing the current scenario among students, there’s a noticeable decline in interest in Dzongkha, particularly among those studying in urban areas like Thimphu. The arrival of international students who actively engage with and express interest in learning Dzongkha brings us joy and pride. This positive influence from foreign students, exemplified by individuals from Australia who are already proficient in English, choosing to learn English and other arts in our country, serves as a source of inspiration for our students. Witnessing this commitment prompts our students to cultivate a heightened interest, recognizing their own potential to excel in these areas. Regarding Dzongkha instruction, a distinctive approach is taken for foreign students, such as the two Australians currently in class 10. Instead of directly teaching class 10 Dzongkha, we allocate additional time to provide specialized instruction. This collaborative learning environment, involving other foreign students in our school, fosters a cross-cultural exchange.”
He added, “Considering the significant number of Bhutanese youths pursuing studies abroad, the arrival of two students from Australia to our country is noteworthy and beneficial. It is a testament to the appeal and value of our education system, offering an enriching experience for both local and international students. Communicating this to my students, I emphasize that the presence of individuals from larger nations emphasizes the importance and relevance of our country, demonstrating that Bhutan holds a meaningful and commendable position in the global educational landscape. One notable distinction that stands out is the unwavering parental commitment in our country. Regardless of any changes in their children’s lives, parents here find it challenging to let go due to the depth of their love. This enduring care extends to situations where, even at the age of 90, a parent might still be actively involved in looking after their 50-year-old son. The pervasive influence of parental love is evident in our lives, shaping the way we experience and navigate through life.”
Owen Chester Ringrose and Archie Rae Chandler-Lee share their profound experiences and motivations for studying in Bhutan at ELC High School. Prior to their journey, extensive planning and research into Bhutan’s culture were undertaken, ensuring a seamless transition and adaptation upon arrival.
Owen Chester Ringrose shared, “I have come to Bhutan to educate myself about a different way of life for five months. Despite being in ELC High School, it feels more like a home that accommodates personal growth rather than just academic development. Observing the people in this country being so happy, focusing not on money but on gross national happiness, has given me a unique perspective on life here. ELC High School prioritizes wellbeing, something we don’t often see in Australia. Wellbeing is crucial, especially as the mental health of young teenagers is significant. This aspect stood out to us. While we were exploring schools and opportunities in Bhutan, ELC caught our eye, and with further research, we fell in love with the school. It’s a great school, and we personally prefer it over government schools.”
He added, “Before coming to Bhutan, there was a lot of planning involved. We studied the country and its culture for about a month. So, upon arriving here, we didn’t face many challenges. Instead, we easily adapted to the culture, just as we had expected. There was no culture shock for us. Bhutan’s culture and tradition are very unique and, in my opinion, truly define the people, their history, and everything that attracts us. I am particularly interested in Buddhism and its language, Dzongkha, which we are trying to learn a little bit of.”
“We visited a rural primary school in Punakha, and it was an eye-opening experience for us. It offered a different and unique way of life that we would never find in Australia. Having the opportunity to bond and get to know the kids at the school, despite the major language barrier, was special. They had a little bit of English, and we had a little bit of Dzongkha, which allowed us to communicate with each other,” he further added.
Archie Rae Chandler-Lee said, “I came to Bhutan for a similar reason as him—to seek a different lifestyle compared to Australia, to benefit from a new culture, and to experience something I haven’t experienced before. I believe Bhutan has a unique ideology, such as gross national happiness and the aspect of carbon negativity, which adds to the country’s uniqueness. It appeals to both of us and highlights how Bhutan differs from all other places in the world. I think Australia lacks a lot of culture, so we decided to study in Bhutan to facilitate our interest in religion, language, and philosophies. We both chose to study here because we believe it will provide a more vibrant experience and contribute to our personal growth. Unlike in Australia, we don’t see high schools with mountains or perched on top of massive hills. I feel like the landscape plays a significant role and greatly contributed to why we chose it.”
He added, “I feel like this experience caters to our personal interests. It may not be the same for everyone, especially those around our age. However, if you have an interest in geography and culture like we do, I would definitely advise you to go ahead and take the opportunity if you have it. The more we found out about Bhutan, the more we fell in love with it. I believe that those interested will benefit in the same way we do.
Deki Choden, the Principal of ELC High School, shares insights into the school’s readiness to welcome students from different countries and emphasizes the encouraging responsiveness at the government level to meet the needs of international students. Expressing a vision for Bhutan to become an education hub.
Deki Choden said, “Having worked with students from different countries, we are prepared to welcome more. At the government level, there is an encouraging responsiveness to these needs. I believe we can not only attract more international students but also entice Bhutanese students to return by showcasing that our country offers an appealing and fulfilling life. I urge the Ministry of Education to adopt a more flexible approach, providing different options and boards to cater to diverse needs. Becoming an education hub with varied offerings can make our country more attractive for students, both international and Bhutanese. Seizing this opportunity can lead to significant growth in our education sector.”
“When one of the boys’ mothers reached out to the school via email, the school administration inquired about why they chose ELC, who recommended the school, and what they knew about it. The mother mentioned that they discovered the school on the Internet and had explored other schools in Thimphu and Bhutan. They found that ELC’s vision, mission, programs, and activities aligned with their interests and those of the boys. Much of their interest stemmed from the fact that ELC offers unique programs beyond the mandated curriculum.”
Karma Galay, the Director General of the Department of School Education in the Ministry of Education and Skill Development, highlights ongoing efforts to integrate international students into Bhutan’s education system. The development of a national education policy, with a specific focus on private schools, aims to encourage the enrollment of students from around the world. This initiative not only contributes to the Bhutanese economy but also fosters a diverse and enriching learning environment.
Karma Galay expressed, “We are delighted to see international students choosing Bhutan as their study destination. This speaks volumes about the quality of education we offer in Bhutan. We are excited that students, particularly from developed countries like Australia, are interested in studying here. Although there isn’t a specific policy in place at the moment, we are currently working on a national education policy that includes a section on private schools. This section encourages the enrollment of international students, aiming to benefit our economy. Simultaneously, we aim to provide a robust curriculum, rich cultural experiences, and positive social interactions.”
He added, “Diversity in learning is always appreciated. Learning is not confined to teachers; much learning occurs between students. Having students from developed countries will undoubtedly bring numerous curricular and academic benefits. Additionally, individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds contribute to experience sharing and foster cultural exchange. Bhutan, internationally known for many things, has great potential to attract a multitude of international students. While the current number of international students is small, it already signifies Bhutan’s potential to become a preferred destination for international students. For those desiring to study in Bhutan, we ensure a smooth arrival process, assisting with visa processing and other travel arrangements. In the future, we aim to streamline the process further, working closely with relevant agencies.”