Middlebury Institute students had the opportunity to travel to Bhutan over spring break to engage with community leaders and local citizens and experience first hand the Himalayan nation’s commitment to a political philosophy based on “Gross National Happiness.” “It was amazing, amazing, amazing,” says an enthusiastic Christine Lukeman MBA ’17, who was one of 10 students who took on the close to 50-hour journey each way from Monterey. The students spent nine days in country.
Bhutan is a small country of around 700,000 people sandwiched between two large powers, India and China. Through strict restrictions for travelers and volunteers (who must have a graduate degree), they have kept their culture relatively untouched by globalization and modernity. “It is in many ways like going back to medieval times,” says Lukeman, “but very happy medieval times.” Since 1971, Bhutan has rejected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the only way to measure progress and instead measures prosperity through formal principles of “Gross National Happiness” or GNH. The GNH measures the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of the country’s citizens and the natural environment.
The trip was organized by Professor Jan Black and Carolyn Taylor Meyer, director of professional immersive and special programs in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management, in partnership with the Royal Thimpu College of Bhutan. Students stayed in dorms at the college for the first part of the trip and were treated to lectures organized specifically for them by local community leaders.
“The lectures were absolutely phenomenal,” says Lukeman, who before coming to the Institute had traveled extensively, visiting over 60 countries. “It is the only place in the world I have been to where there does not seem to be any tourism industry, and the whole concept of selling anything to tourists seems to be foreign to them.” The group had the opportunity to participate in the Paro Tsechu Festival, with dances performed by monks and laypeople dressed in colorful costumes. For the festival, the students all dressed in traditional clothing that they bought for the occasion.
During the second part of the trip, the students traveled with Black and Meyer for eight hours in a bus to reach the Phobjikha Valley, known for the black-necked cranes that winter there. They split into smaller groups and stayed at the homes of local farmers while hiking in the area. “We had the opportunity to interact with the families and have a wonderfully authentic experience,” says Lukeman. On their last day, they hiked up to the Tiger’s Nest, the famous monastery perched on a cliff at high elevation.
The Institute students who traveled to Bhutan this spring are working on individual research projects tailored to fit their degree program. “I would say that most of us changed our topics once we were there, because there was just so much we could not have foreseen,” says Lukeman, who is researching the role Buddhism plays in public policy—a fascinating topic born of a fascinating experience.