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Tibetan education thrives – in exile

As Tibetans mark 50 years since China's occupation of Tibet, the exile community sees a major accomplishment in creating a network of schools that preserves their language and culture.

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The Dalai Lama regularly expounds on the importance of education. Last December in Dharamsala he told a group of 150 new arrivals from Tibet that with a "higher standard of education … we can fight for our rights."

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"The reason Tibetans face so much difficulty is because we lacked education," he said. "The most important thing is to study and learn. With that we can compete in a modern world."

In spite of notable strides, Tibetan exile schools have their share of challenges. A 2005 education policy attempts to modernize curriculums and raise school standards. "The general standard is not satisfactory," said Karma Gelek Yuthok, education secretary in the exile government, citing mechanical teaching methods.

The curriculum has been redesigned to "make young minds active" and Mr. Yuthok says salaries have been raised. There is also more emphasis on teacher training.

Yet the schools must balance a modern education with preserving old ways. In 2005, they were required to teach in Tibetan through the fifth grade. English is taught as a foreign language from fourth grade but informal exposure begins much earlier.

Most of the exile schools are in India and follow local curriculum, while stressing Tibetan religion, history, geography, and language.

Twenty-one percent of TCV's graduates find work in vocational and technical education, 18 percent go into traditional crafts, and 18 percent go into "humanities," according to a TCV report. Lackluster participation in professional fields has prompted the Dalai Lama to encourage students to specialize. To that end, a new TCV college was inaugurated last month in Bangalore, India, for Tibetans shut out of India's highly competitive university admissions process.

About 70 percent of TCV's students are new arrivals from Tibet. Comprehensive schooling in Tibetan language and culture is uncommon in Tibet, where Chinese instruction dominates. In Tibet's isolated rural areas, schools are shoddy or virtually nonexistent.

Professor Sperling notes that Tibetans ultimately succeeded in establishing a strong education system in exile, "so much so that Tibetans are still trying to send their children from Tibet to India for education."

TCV encourages students to return after completing their studies. Youngsters who came to India legally with Chinese passports can return with relative ease. But those who crossed the border without papers risk arrest or interrogation if they go home.

Many former students look back fondly on their school days. Sonam Dorjee credits 13 years at TCV schools with nurturing his confidence and fostering his political activism.

Today, he is a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress and works for a Tibetan nonprofit that assists local Indians in Dharamsala.

"I had so many chances to learn so many things," says Dorjee. "I had some of my most memorable times there. Even today I want to go back."