It used to be that when senior Drolma Gadou wanted to return to her hometown of Choni in Tibet, it took her two days. By horse cart. These days, she says, it takes her two hours by rental car over newly paved roads.
Gadou, who is majoring in international comparative studies, is all too aware that her country is changing rapidly. Unfortunately, she says, many of her people are being left behind.
Dressed in blue jeans and a purple T-shirt, Gadou looks completely at home in the bustling atmosphere of the Trinity Café on East Campus. But she is quick to point out that her situation is atypical for most Tibetans.
The great majority, she says, are farmers or nomads, whose children have to walk for hours every day to get to and from school. Her parents both enjoyed steady government jobs and lived in a town with schools close by. In a land dotted with Chinese-language schools, she attended Tibetan school until her first year of high school, when she became just one of three students to receive a scholarship to the English Training Program (ETP) at Qinghai Normal University, an English-language training school staffed by American and English volunteers.
ETP was designed to help Tibetans learn English so that they “have a broader view of the world and are better prepared for jobs,” she says. After teaching English to her, those teachers encouraged her to apply to U.S. universities, including Duke.
The school also encouraged students to apply their newfound skills to community-service projects. Gadou spent two summers working on projects through which 3,000 solar-powered cookers were distributed to rural Tibetan communities. In her first year at Duke, she and then sophomore Nanjie Caihua received a $10,000 grant from Davis Projects for Peace to supply 400 more.
Her parents have always told her to be mindful that she is who she is because of the sacrifices of their family. At ETP, it was foreigners who “really sacrificed a lot to be in Tibetan areas and help Tibetan students—out of compassion or love or understanding,” Gadou says. And at Duke, history professor Claudia Koonz and cultural anthropology professor Ralph Litzinger taught her that she could leverage her education to tackle larger issues, help a wider circle of people, and gain a scholarly “outside perspective” on the issues of her homeland.
Gadou is hard at work on her senior thesis, a study of the poor state of health care in Tibetan communities. Many Tibetans, she says, are cut off from decent health care because of language, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers. For example, many believe that disease comes from some internal imbalance; the concept of bacteria and viruses “doesn’t work in their way of understanding the world.” Tibetan hospitals are state run, and medical personnel generally speak Chinese. So most Tibetan patients find themselves trying to describe disease symptoms in Tibetan terms in a language they don’t speak.
Ultimately, Gadou says, she would like to help Tibetans improve their lives through social entrepreneurship projects such as microfinance or microbusiness ventures, so that they no longer have to rely on a system of charity supplied by foreign NGOs.
“I don’t want to be a professional beggar,” she says. “I want the communities to mobilize themselves so they can sustain themselves.”