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Graduation brings mixed emotions for Tibetan student

May 11, 2009

By Gregory Childress,
The Herald-Sun
May 10, 2009

DURHAM -- Chad Tudenggongbu, the first Tibetan
undergraduate ever admitted to Duke University,
will have a lot on his mind today while waiting to receive his diploma.

The 26-year-old cultural anthropology major has
been awarded a full scholarship to Bard College
in New York to pursue a master's degree in
environmental science, but he's afraid to tell
his mother about his good fortune.

"It wouldn't be exciting to her," Tudenggongbu
said with resignation during an interview in the
Alpine cafeteria in Duke's Bryan Center last week.

While Tudenggongbu's parents have been supportive
of his efforts to further his education, they
expect him to return home to the Kham region in
eastern Tibet after graduation to get a job to
help support the family. "We had a mother-son
agreement," Tudenggongbu said. "She would let me
go to Duke and I agreed to return after four years."

That agreement makes today's graduation ceremony
a bittersweet occasion for Tudenggongbu.

Because of his profound respect for his mother,
Tudenggongbu finds himself torn between breaking
his promise and continuing what he describes as
an "amazing" educational journey in the U.S.

"I can't stop and won't stop when I graduate,"
Tudenggongbu said matter-of-factly, trying to
convince himself. "I want to continue this
journey. I'm in a dilemma. I respect my mother very much."

In the rural regions of Tibet, much is expected
of those fortunate enough to get an education.
And the expectation for someone who has traveled
to America to attend university even that much greater, he said.

Tudenggongbu, who earned his way to Duke by
working his way through a complex Chinese
educational system and excelling on all levels,
said returning home at this point would end his
dream of earning a master's degree in
environmental science. He wants to leverage the
degree to land a job with a non-governmental
organization so he can help the people of Tibet.

It was Tudenggongbu's association with
international NGO workers in Tibet that led him
to Duke. He met them while enrolled in a program
to accelerate his English, which had been
self-taught until that point. They encouraged him
to apply to American universities. He did and was eventually admitted by Duke.

"When he arrived here, I'll never forget it,"
said Ralph Litzinger, associate professor and
director of Duke's Asian/Pacific Studies
Institute. "He had a ruck sack on his back, and
it was even a big one. That's all he had with him."

But, Litzinger said, Tudenggongbu "made friends
quickly and threw himself into school and into
Duke life," Litzinger said. "It was clear this is
someone who was extremely independent and self-sufficient."

With a bachelor's degree in hand, Tudenggongbu
said the best he could hope for in his homeland
is a teaching job, and even that is no guarantee.
He said he would have to pass a series of
governmental exams to be eligible to teach school.

"Being in Tibet, we all kind of have a glass
ceiling," Tudenggongbu said. "Instead of working
for a government agency, I liked to work for an
NGO and help my people in another way."

Tudenggongbu has already made an impact in his
homeland. He returned to Tibet one summer after
being awarded grants from Good Works and
DukeEngage to buy and deliver electric-generating
solar panels to nomadic Tibetans so they can light their tents at night.

A former nomad himself before his family moved to
town, Tudenggongbu knew firsthand the challenges of living without electricity.

"As a kid, I grew up in a tent," Tudenggongbu
said. "I know how difficult it is to study under
candlelight when even the slightest breeze would blow it out."

On another trip home, Tudenggongbu created a
library for children in the village of Jiayi. He
purchased 3,000 books for children and convinced
the school's principal to allow him to set up a library in a vacant room.

Tudenggongbu noted that the books were in the
Tibetan language. He is concerned that the
language is being lost because Chinese, the
official language, has become the standard by which everyone is measured.

"It's dying," he said of his native tongue. "If
we lose our language, we'll lose our cultural identity."

Tudenggongbu, who didn't read his first novel
until he was 19 years old, got the idea for a
library after visiting the Regulator Bookstore on
Ninth Street. He said he was amazed to see young
children walking through the store talking about
their favorite books and authors.

In Tibet, he said, students seldom read for
pleasure. "When you read a book, people take that
as a chore," Tudenggongbu said "It's not
something you would do unless you had to."

When Tudenggongbu arrived at Duke in 2005, he was
the only Tibetan enrolled in the school. Since
then, the number has grown to six, including a
young woman whom he attended school with in Tibet and is now dating.

The other students' experience at Duke has been a
little less stressful because Tudenggongbu has
paved the way for them. He's become sort of the
Jackie Robinson of Tibetan students at Duke.

"If you have one student survive, that sends a
message to the other students," Tudenggongbu
said. "The questions about whether they can
survive academically and socially has already
been answered by me, so they don't have to worry about this."
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