Nobody needs to lecture Tenzin Bhagen about how important it is to get a good education. Forced to work in a commune carrying rocks on his back when he was barely nine years old, the Tibetan refugee never dared dream he might one day learn to read and write. In fact, it wasn’t until he fled to India after trekking across the Himalayas when he was 21, that Tenzin, who had by then become a truck driver, ventured into a classroom for the first time. More than 15 years later, he still can’t get enough of the books.
Now midway through his journalism degree at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Tenzin has set about making his education even more of an international experience. He has just arrived at Kingston University for a year-long exchange programme. The excitement of learning and living in different countries around the globe is all a far cry from Tenzin’s harsh upbringing in his Chinese-occupied homeland. “The more I thought about it, the more I felt I had no alternative but to escape,” he explained. “I wanted to fulfil my goal of seeing the Dalai Lama, I wanted to experience freedom but what I wanted more than anything was to get an education. I felt that being a human without education was like being a bird without wings.”
After graduating with a high school diploma in India, Tenzin headed for the United States where he threw himself into working for Tibetan liberation charity the Milarepa Fund, run by rappers the Beastie Boys. The books then beckoned again. Tenzin won a scholarship and was able to start his journalism degree. He sees his exchange year at Kingston University, where he plans to complete modules in English literature and British culture and life, as another all-important opportunity to cram in as much learning as he can. “To me, this is another exciting chance to explore differences in politics, religion and culture so that I can continue to broaden my understanding of the way the world works,” Tenzin said.
He also hopes to highlight the plight of his fellow countrymen and women by setting up a branch of Students for Free Tibet in Kingston. Long term, he aims to dedicate himself to writing about Tibet to raise international awareness about the hardships and political situation in his homeland. “I feel an obligation to provide a voice for my people who are voiceless,” Tenzin said. “It’s up to me to make sure people know about the conditions they face.”