Education Is GNH: Learning To Nurture Our Hearts

Posted by Tim Huang on Jan 28, 2015
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In 1972, the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan adopted the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a holistic approach to development that moves beyond GDP and takes into account shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, cultural preservation, and other factors that are essential to human well-being. And while I cannot speak to the manifestation of Gross National Happiness as the complex policy tool or index that it is in the government’s eyes today, I can speak about my lessons on GNH at a more simple, human level – in the heart-felt and empowering education of young people in Bhutan.

Last month, I volunteered as a founding facilitator for Camp Rural-Urban Friendship (RUF), a 10-day camp that brought together over 100 youth from rural Dagana in southern Bhutan and Bhutan’s capital city Thimphu in cooperation, co-learning, and co-creation, all aligned with the motto “where we educate our hearts.” When I first met Tenzin Dorji, a teacher in a Dagana middle school and Camp RUF’s co-founder, in October of last year, he shared his heartfelt story, a journey that started with the vision of his late wife Kelzang and continues today as he works relentlessly to make Camp RUF an integral part of the educational experiences of youth across Bhutan.

Although Kelzang passed away from a serious illness before this vision was realized, she, as a fellow teacher in rural Dagana, was the one who originally envisaged the camp while teaching. Together, Kelzang and Tenzin felt that this camp could build mutual understanding and unity across Bhutan’s growing rural-urban divide while developing life-long youth friendships grounded in love. Because of their vision, I knew I had to get involved in this camp, but little did I know that this camp would impact me far more than I could have ever imagined. In those 10 days in rural Dagana, Camp RUF taught me that a meaningful education is GNH, “learninG to Nurture our Hearts.” And I can honestly say that I feel thoroughly excited and re-invigorated by the possibilities that I see in the “education of our hearts,” both in Bhutan and beyond.

As I reflect back on the camp, I walked away with 10 key lessons on life, love, and learning:

1. It takes a village. Our team of 50 volunteers was truly remarkable. From both rural areas and urban areas, we had teachers, principals, artists, actresses, researchers, nurses, NGO and CSO officers, filmmakers, producers, radio and TV correspondents, recent high school and college graduates, and many more come together as a unified team to make Camp RUF possible. What was so special was that everyone put aside their egos and their agendas in service of a larger vision to connect and empower youth from all walks of life. After the 10 days, we walked away as a family that could challenge, support, and love one another. We embodied the vision of rural-urban friendship, and modeled it for our campers. It was really the 110% effort of every volunteer that made this camp the success it was. It was seeing people volunteer their time and effort, going out of their way 3 months before the camp to secure the bus transportation for the youth, ensure the safety and health of our campers, fundraise, set up the camp site, and so much more.
2. Don’t romanticize rural life. Without a doubt, the villagers we met faced some real struggles (just as those in urban areas do). The detrimental impact of climate change on their crops, the difficulties of accessing and navigating poor infrastructure (rugged roads) and facilities (basic health units, etc.) in their community, and the day-to-day grind of making ends meet when the youth of their community have mostly left for urban centers – these were just a few of the challenges that we saw. The benefits of Bhutan’s “sustainable development” have not been equitable, and more than ever, it was clear at the camp. The camp site, Lungtengang Primary School in remote Lungtengang valley, was inaccessible by vehicle and was about 4 hour hike away from any major roads and towns. The school itself had very few resources and left many who came from Thimphu feeling, at least initially, as though they were a far cry away from the amenities and conveniences they had back home (such as the fact that urban youth don’t have to walk up to 2 hours each way to get to school everyday).
3. But recognize its beauty and resilience. Despite the challenges that those in rural areas face, those of us who came from Thimphu began to really appreciate what rural areas had to offer to Bhutan - the beauty of unexploited forests, the profound silence of the mornings and evenings, the strength of the shared bonds between villagers, and the unending hospitality that villagers offer to strangers they’ve never met. Sure, it would have been easy for those of us from Thimphu to look for only the bad in our trip to Dagana (some were very frustrated with the lack of water or facilities for bathing), but the camp created a powerful space where we could see that we weren’t here to “help” those in “poverty” but to really learn together across our differences, to examine our own privileges and responsibilities, and to collectively take action for change, both here and at home, with our new friends. The resilience and hope that we saw in the eyes of those in rural Dagana inspired us and reminded us of our collective resilience as human beings who adapt and find happiness in whatever conditions we find ourselves in.

4. Urban youth broke stereotypes. In general, the media, policymakers, and the general public portray Bhutan’s urban youth as spoiled, ignorant, and rebellious. The urban youth that came to the camp broke all of these stereotypes. One moment that really struck me was on Day 6, when groups of youth who had gone out to the village households spent time as the sons and daughters of those families. We churned milk, collected and carried hay, de-kernelled maize, cooked and cleaned with the families, fed livestock, helped with household chores, and more. At the end of the day, 2 girls, both urban campers from Thimphu, asked to stay overnight at the household. They were having so much fun and were learning so much about rural life that they both requested to be left behind! Although it didn’t work out because of logistically reasons, the ask itself really caught me by surprise because it began to break down the whole idea that urban youth care nothing for Bhutan’s cultural process and still predominantly rural identity. Urban youth not only care, but they can be active agents in their own learning relationships, particularly in rural settings.
5. Rural youth shared their sincerity. The rural youth I met through Camp RUF touched me with their genuine care of all of us from urban areas. From the first day when we arrived at the camp site, they welcomed us with the biggest smiles and showed us so much hospitality. They really showed us the ropes and helped us adjust to the different living conditions we found ourselves in. They teased us with inside jokes, just as close friends and families do. They guided us through the paths and trails that carved through the valley. They took our musical instruments (guitars, ukuleles, etc.) and impressed us with beautiful, local songs. They borrowed my camera for a day and took remarkable photos, giving me a view into their lives through the lens of photography, a snapshot of how they experienced rural life alongside us. And perhaps, most importantly, they taught us what it means to be sincere and courageous, sharing vulnerably and from the heart even when most had difficulties speaking publically in English (most of the rural youth in Dagana are comfortable speaking only Nepali or Dzongkha). And although the camp was language-agnostic, with the support of their new friends, they would make the conscious effort to speak and practice English even when they were embarrassed or nervous.
6. Connection and learning blossom organically. I re-learned that learning and human connection are not separate – they are one and the same. Through cultural and experiential learning like sharing the same food, living under the same roof and exchanging indigenous knowledge, learning and connection blossom together from our most important shared human values: empathy, teamwork, trust, humor, and compassion. Even more, so many of the most powerful learning moments happened when we least expected them to – in the evenings before bed in the classrooms that we called our dormitories, during our 4-hour WALK (Witness, Accept, Love, Know Thyself – inspired by Nipun’s acronym from his UPenn commencement speech) to the camp site, in our experiences serving and learning with local villagers, in between our sessions as youth became friends over laughter, food, music, and invented games and sports, and in the evening reflection sessions when youth pondered and shared from the heart.

7. But build in space to till our inner and outer soil. Every day of the 10 day program was framed by a guiding prompt (based on Wiggins and McTighe’s Backwards Design theory of curriculum development) and supported through quality time for inner and outer service. Every morning before the day’s activities, campers would meditate together in the hall. During the day, they would engage in educational sessions in the fields, with villagers, and with each other. Every evening after the day’s activities, campers would sit together in the hall, watch a photo slideshow of the day, and reflect on the prompt after a day’s worth of activities. They would journal, share their learnings from the day with a friend, and then share out to the whole campers group if they chose to. Some very powerful learning occurred through this continual process of experiential engagement and service, self-discovery, and contemplation. Here is a brief overview of each day’s prompt and activities so you can get a sense of how this camp accomplished this:

DAY 1: This Is The Way We Welcome – the opening day spent on a hike to the camp site and meeting our rural counterparts for the first time, facilitated by fun icebreakers, a bonfire, and other introductory activities, like a traditional village welcome ceremony.

DAY 2: How Special Can My New Friend Be? – a day spent engaged in cooperative learning activities that address being a good friend and developing strong relationships (gift exchange with your paired friend from a rural/urban area, forming our “family” units, creating group norms and identities, etc.)

DAY 3: How Beautiful Can A Life Be When I Learn To Appreciate Self and Others? – a day dedicated to empowering campers to appreciate their own and others’ multiple intelligences, their various ways of being smart in this beautiful life (activities included a nature and agricultural scavenger hunt, math logic puzzle, human knot, “once upon a time…” storytelling activity, maintain the musical rhythm game, etc.)

DAY 4: How Happy Can I Be After Helping Someone in Need? – an action-packed day outside of the camp site engaged in a service-learning project with Ap Phuntsho, a local farmer who requested support in dismantling his old house and building a new one.

DAY 5: Can I Dance Like My Friend? – a fun day in which campers discussed culture and created their own dance choreography to a variety of Bhutanese, Tibetan, Hindi, Nepali, and western songs and performed them during a high-energy culminating concert.

DAY 6: What Is The Beauty of Being a Farmer? – an unique opportunity for the campers to experience rural hospitality and learn directly from different village families about their daily tasks, their indigenous knowledge, and their eco-friendly lifestyles, re-framing rural areas and the natural environment as places of learning and growth.

DAY 7: How Can I Be The Change I Wish to See in the World? – a day dedicated to guiding and empowering the campers through the Design for Change process, in which the youth themselves take on an “I CAN, We CAN” attitude of feeling problems (i.e. pollution and trash overflow), imagining solutions (i.e. “buy local” campaign), doing some action step, and sharing their results.

DAY 8: What is Education? – a day that engaged the campers in reflecting, thinking critically about, and creating their own ways of expressing what they personally believe “education” is to them, with a strong relation to the lessons they learned throughout the camp as the foundation of that synthesis.

DAY 9: How Can I Gratify This Village? – a fun culminating day in which the campers hosted a festival filled with games, food, music, dancing, showcase performances, lessons learned, and more for the villagers who were so kind to host us during our stay.

DAY 10: This Is The Way We Bid Farewell – a fitting conclusion for a camp that changed all of our lives: a traditional village send-off, a painful departure, endless tears, joyous reunions with family, and ultimately, a deep gratitude for the entire experience.

8. Just improvise and have fun (never stop singing and dancing). A camp is not a camp without catchy camp songs and profuse dancing. Luckily, Camp RUF had both. Before we left for Camp RUF, the volunteer team wrote the lyrics for and produced a beautiful camp song called “Paa Wai” (literally “great!” in Dzongkha) that resonates with the vision of Camp RUF. Everyday, we would play this music and sing together at all the transition points leading into the morning session and between sessions. On one of the most memorable evenings, we had a full out dance party, blasting everything from Bruno Mar’s “Uptown Funk” to traditional Bhutanese songs out of our main hall. All of our campers and facilitators were unleashing their silly/wild sides and just having a great time. I’m pretty sure we were the closest thing to a club that remote Lungtengang has ever seen. From our bus ride on day 1 to the last bonfire near the end of the camp, we were just making it up, sharing our humorous, heartfelt improvised songs and our distinctive dance moves. These were really life lessons we were learning through music and movement – how to embrace the fact that life is filled with uncertainty and as we go along, we’re all figuring this out together in complete confusion and delight.
9. Family is everyone and everywhere. Throughout the camp, our youth were organized into “family” groups of 12 youth, as close to evenly balanced between rural, urban, male, female as possible, led by a caregiver. These diverse “family” units were the core learning groups that engaged, interacted, and reflected together during all our educational sessions. By around Day 5, half way through the camp, there was a tangible sense that the invisible threads that now tied us together would be keep us connected for the rest of our lives. Quickly moving beyond the stranger roles we played initially or the labels we placed on one another, we soon became more than just campers – we became a big family of kindred spirits. Even our daylong visits to village households on Day 6 ended with same sense of authentic human connection and kinship. Some of the rural village families were so touched by the open-mindedness and genuine learning mindsets of our youth that they cried tears of sadness and gratitude when the campers left at the end of the day. These villagers and local community members, who we came to know only briefly during our time in remote Dagana, became our family as well. Our interdependence and shared understandings about the simple joys in life (eating together, sharing folktales and stories, etc.) reconnected us to our common humanity.

10. Real education is co-created with youth. Near the end of the camp on day 8, I facilitated a session called “What is Education?” Instead of telling the campers what education is, I asked them to reflect on their favorite learning moments from the camp, and together, we drew out lessons on what education meant to each one of them. Each item on the list, connected to specific activity, day, or moment throughout the camp, was truly remarkable: education is fun, collaborative, personally transformative, equitable, aligning with personal passions, making us better people and friends, multiple ways of being smart, directly connected to our lives, looking inside and reflecting, connected to the community and environment, learning to be happy, and learning to love. And ultimately, they all pointed to one thing: education is empowerment. Following this activity, the campers created their own quotes and learning journey comic strips on education, which we will publish in a small book to share with local schools. My session was only an example of the broader theme of Camp RUF: co-creation. You might be wondering: what is co-creation? Well, I personally believe it’s what one of our facilitators Madam Deki calls “mutual illumination” - the democratic and empowering process by which we mutually bring out the best in each other. It’s giving youth a voice and stake in their own educational experiences. As such, instead of giving youth answers or imparting knowledge, we as facilitators took a step back and listened to what input and ideas the youth had. In doing so, the youth became our teachers. All of us, as facilitators and volunteers, felt so privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from them as they brought their unique passions, their creativity, and their youthful wisdom to every conversation and session throughout the camp. Through extraordinary actions, like a young boy who comforted a tearful fellow camper who grew up without her father by sharing vulnerably about his childhood without his father, they reminded us to be compassionate and empathetic, open-minded and curious, honest and appreciative – the very values that grounded Camp RUF in its vision. So ultimately, the 10 days of Camp RUF were, in many ways, an experiment in co-creation that gave us all the courage to be more, expressing our gifts and identities together to more whole-heartedly embrace the fullness of our lives.

I’ll end this reflection where I started, with a sense of real excitement about the possibilities I see in the “education of our hearts” in Bhutan and beyond. Thanks to Tenzin Dorji and the late Kelzang Chhoden, Camp RUF is really a living laboratory for trying something different in education, just as Bhutan, with its philosophy of Gross National Happiness, is a living laboratory for trying something different with development. It’s about trusting in the process of figuring things out together in that space of the unknown, learning to connect across our differences, exploring what makes us more human, and building a more just and sustainable planet. I truly believe that Camp RUF will serve as a model for education that is empowering, equitable, and heart-felt. And I hope that the friendships we formed and the lessons we learned in that friendship will in turn create a more unified and compassionate world.

Rural or urban, doesn’t even matter. You’re my friend and you’re my ladder. Hand in hand. Trust and lift each other up. Learning to love here at Camp RUF. Paa Wai! (lyrics from our camp song)

Posted by Tim Huang | Tags: youth education bhutan gnh empowerment rural urban friendship camp heart | permalink

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Comments (20)

  • Birju Pandya wrote ...

    dude. this is an amazing write-up from my eyes. thank you so much for sharing your insights!!! please share more!! :)

  • Amit Dungarani wrote ...

    Tim - this is fantastic...we need you on the Awakin Call!!!!!

  • Judi wrote ...

    What a marvelous concept!!!!! The world could use more of this! THANK you for sharing.... Have you thought about a book....? And I'd love to see the photos taken by the camper who had your camera.......

  • Kristin Pedemonti wrote ...

    here's to mutual illumination! Having just returned from a week in Iran performing in their Kanoon International Storytelling Festival, I echo and applaud every one of the 10 points made. It is by connecting, seeing ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves that we can all be the change we wish to see. Great article, great project! Hugs from my heart to yours!

  • Gabrielle wrote ...

    The GNH campaign has also included driving ethnically Nepali people from their homes in Bhutan where they had lived for many generations. GNH is not inclusive. I have worked with some of the refugees who have endured untold hardships in camps and now in low-income housing in America and other countries. Their resilience and determination are amazing. Please don't buy the hype of the Gross National Happiness campaign. It has a very dark side behind the smiles of its leaders.

  • Norm Milstein wrote ...

    This is an inspirational story about bringing people together in a creative, humane, respectful, celebratory way. Thanks for sharing! Greetings from the Association of Longtalkers and the Cosmic Dictionary Association. We are dedicated to exploring the untapped potential for verbal creativity and sharing it in humorous, exciting, positive ways. May you prosper and thrive in all your endeavors!

  • Puneet singhal wrote ...

    Beautiful insights and vision

  • Mary wrote ...

    How did you get involved in this wonderful program and how long did you volunteer?

  • brinda wrote ...

    WOW!!! This is amazing :-) Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Rosleen Reynolds wrote ...

    What beautiful work.........thank you.

  • Deepak wrote ...

    Wow great sharing and immense possibilities to bridge the urban rural divide in all countries . Life long friendships would have been created in this 10 day camp .

  • elizabeth forrest wrote ...

    Thank you - very heartwarming and inspiring!

  • Tim Huang wrote ...

    Thanks for the positive responses everyone - please read more/support Camp Rural-Urban Friendship at

    Gabrielle, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree that GNH is not perfect and nor is Bhutan (every country in the world has its share of issues and challenges). Many of the youth we actually worked with at the Camp RUF are southern Bhutanese, Lhotshampa, and it was inspiring to actually see how the camp built a safe space for all youth to connect deeply across their differences and narratives to build a better Bhutan.

    Mary, I was invited by a close mutual friend of the camp co-founder to get involved and volunteer. For roughly 3 months, I supported the planning, implementation, facilitation, and post-camp activities. It's been a blast, and I may help with this year's 2015 camp as well!

  • Laura wrote ...

    Learning and human connection go of the many words of wisdom here.
    Thank you, we need this attitude of gratitude in the USA.

  • Neil Patel wrote ...

    Just awesome Tim! Keep it up

  • Thomas wrote ...

    This is a really great account ! Makes me wish I could have been part of it !

  • b2 wrote ...

    Tim, moving reflections! +1 Dunga's vote. :-)

  • B. Hayes wrote ...

    At last! Real education- for real people, real human needs, out in the real world. Time to overhall schools. I don't put { schools and school buildings ] in the same category as education.

  • Guri wrote ...

    Great to finally hear more about your work in Bhutan! Thanks for sharing Tim! P.S. We miss you at Awakins. :-) Love, Guri

  • Sonam Yangden wrote ...

    Paa Wai! (Y) :D