Saturday, 12 September 2009

Being A Richardson Foundation Scholar

The Richardson Foundation Scholarship has been truly a godsend for a nondescript Tibetan refugee like me. It has not only bestowed upon me the rarest of opportunities to study at two of the best educational institutions in Britain i.e. the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh but also, by doing so, engendered in me a sense of dignity and a feeling of self-worth. Given the importance this bursary holds in my life, I feel it would be befitting if I start this blog by offering tribute to my deceased benefactor to whom I owe my education and by giving a brief account of my academic experience in the UK .

 My benefactor Dr. Hugh Edward Richardson

The late Dr. Hugh E. Richardson, who instituted this s
cholarship, was the last British envoy to Tibet before the People’s Liberation Army marched into Lhasa in 1950. He was not only a close friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama but also an accomplished pundit of Tibetan history, culture and politics with numerous scholarly works to his credit. Dr. Richardson was among a handful of individuals from the outside world to be present in Tibet in the 1940s and to witness all the tragic developments leading up to the fall of the Tibetan nation. Considering his rich diplomatic experience as the head of the British Mission in Lhasa and his first hand knowledge of the political landscape in Tibet prior to the Chinese occupation, it would not be entirely inappropriate if I were to say that he as an individual personified a critical period in the history of my country.

Perhaps it was his fondness of the land and its people which prompted him, at a time when very few could speak with authority on Tibet, to take upon himself the task of enlightening the world about it. He continued to champion our cause even after his retirement from Her Majesty’s government service and until his demise in December in 2000 remained an active supporter of the Tibetan people’s right to self determination. For his life-long contribution towards our struggle, the entire Tibetan nation will remain indebted to him forever.

On a personal level, not having been able to meet Dr. Richardson will remain one of the biggest regrets of my life. Had I had the fortune of making his acquaintance, I believe he would have instantly discovered my curiosity for all things historical and taught me a great deal about my country’s past. His illuminating commentaries on various aspects of Tibetan history, of which I happen to own a few copies, never fail to inspire me. His written works are an integral part of my collection of books on Tibet, and will continue to motivate me to persevere and follow in his footsteps.

As a Richardson Foundation Scholar, to be a part of such an influential figure’s vision for Tibet’s future is a great privilege. For someone whose parents have not even been to school, getting a chance to pursue higher studies, and that too at reputed British universities like St Andrews and Edinburgh, is really special. Although I am only the third student to be selected by the Richardson Foundation, I am cognizant of the fact that I am following in a very long tradition of intellectual enrichment of Tibetans in British institutions; a tradition which was initiated way back in the 1910s by the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama when on Sir Charles Bell’s advice, he arranged for four Tibetan youths to study at Rugby School, a famous British public school. Given the unfortunate circumstances we Tibetans find ourselves in, I know that this scholarship brings with it a lot of responsibility: the responsibility to work towards alleviating the sufferings of our compatriots back home and the responsibility to be a voice for our grievances in international forums. With my obligations in mind, I am committed to making the best use of the rare opportunity afforded to me, and determined to employ my British education to serve the larger interests of our people both inside Tibet and in the Diaspora.

In mid-2003, when I heard about the Richardson Foundation Scholarship and received a circular from the Department of Education for a competitive exam scheduled for November of the same year, I was thrilled by the prospect of pursuing my undergraduate career in the UK. I instantly made up my mind to avail myself of this opportunity of a life time. To that effect, I worked diligently for months on end. I had no plan B in case I failed to make it. So I toiled as if my life depended on it.

My happiness knew no bounds when I was duly rewarded for my persistence. There and then, I learnt a life-altering lesson in the virtue of perseverance. I have ever since developed an unflinching conviction that with a fair amount of hard work and determination, one can achieve anything in life.

Having topped the competitive exam, I set out for Britain in the fall of 2004, my destination being St Andrews, a cozy little town on the eastern coast of Scotland famous for its golf courses and, of course the University – the foremost university in Scotland and, after Oxford and Cambridge, the oldest university in the U.K.. With the local population of only 10,000 and away from the hullabaloo and the pollution of a big metropolis, I found it an ideal place for academic learning and introspection. I feel that my four years at St Andrews was time well spent. I chose to read International Relations taking into account my interest and the appropriateness of this subject for our cause. As my course work, I researched and wrote papers on a plethora of topics including the American constitution, Chinese foreign policy, North Korean nuclear crisis, secularism and religious fanaticism, human rights and decolonization, political strategies and diplomacy, the United Nations, international terrorism and so forth. The course gave me a comprehensive outlook on world politics and its paradoxical intricacies.

Apart from studies, I took part in a number of extracurricular activities during my stint at St Andrews. I continued writing articles and opinion pieces for the Tibetan World magazine with which I was already associated for almost a year as a freelance contributor. Being an activist at heart, I joined groups such as the Amnesty International, the Model UN and the Student Unicef, and participated in their events whenever my schedule permitted. In the summer of 2005, Prince William, who had been a student at the University since 2001, graduated and I witnessed the entire British Royal Family attend his graduation ceremony. The realization that I, a Tibetan refugee from a little known Indian town had been given a chance to study at the same institution as the future king of Britain made me feel extremely blessed.

That winter, I was invited to attend a week-long Tibetan Youth Leadership Programme in Amsterdam by the International Campaign for Tibet, Europe. During this training programme, I along with a dozen other young Tibetans received a crash course on Tibet’s political history, the Chinese government’s stand on Tibet, the Sino-Tibetan talks, media relations, campaign organization and lobbying. After my return from Amsterdam, I started contemplating how best I could put all the skills I had acquired during the leadership programme into practical use. It was when the idea to establish a Tibet Society at the University crossed my mind. In early 2007, I along with a few like-minded friends founded a society dedicated to raising awareness about Tibet. I served as the president of the society until April 2008.

In February 2007, I made a trip down to London courtesy the Richardson Foundation to interview Mr. Robert Ford who was a wireless radio operator hired by the Tibetan government and stationed in Eastern Tibet at the time of the Chinese invasion. I had read about the ordeal he had to go through after being captured by the People’s Liberation Army and branded by them an “imperialist agent”. His autobiography – Captured in Tibet -- was inspiring and meeting him in person and listening to his extraordinary story was equally fascinating. The same year the University’s Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics (CSRP) started a 10-year research programme on Tibet’s culture, religion and politics. In my final year, I got selected to do an internship with the CSRP and did a piece on the influence of Buddhism on the Tibetan people’s struggle for self determination.

In the social arena, I was able to meet students from all over the world and learn about cultures and traditions of a number of countries. I also managed to make a few friends from the Chinese Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. While there surfaced many differences of opinion when it came to discussing Tibet with them, we were nevertheless able to engage in constructive debates on the issue on several occasions. During vacation, I worked a part time job to save some money for my further studies as I wanted to study beyond my undergraduate years. Apart from being able to earn some money, working with the local people helped me improve my English and learn about local customs and traditions. In four years, I flew back to India twice to spend summer holidays with my family; the Richardson Foundation paid for my flight the first time I went home. I also received a yearly grant towards the cost of my course books. In June 2008, I graduated from St Andrews University with a 2.1 in M.A (Hons) in International Relations.

As early as my second year at St Andrews, I had decided to read International Law at the postgraduate level. I believe a sound knowledge of, and expertise in legal studies is indispensable especially for a stateless and unrepresented people like us. I am of the opinion that law could be employed as a highly effective tool to further our cause and highlight our concerns. I am certain that if we construct our claims on credible legal foundations, there will be increased international support for, and endorsement of them. My intention is to play a useful cameo in our quest for international recognition by specializing in international law.

With these aspirations in mind, I applied for admission into the University of Edinburgh, which is thought to have one of the best law faculties in the UK. On being offered a place to study international law there, the Richardson Foundation once again came to my rescue financially and decided to fund my tuition fees and a part of my living expenses. I also managed to bag a grant for refugee academics, which I set aside to buy course books and to meet other miscellaneous costs. With everything on the financial front taken care of, I started my LLM in International Law at Edinburgh University from September 2008. But just when I was beginning to enjoy my learning experience at Edinburgh, I had to interrupt my studies and return home half way through the first semester owing to a string of family emergencies.

The first few months after my return were very difficult both for me and my family. An important member of my family passed away during those months and another young member (my sister) was struck with a life-threatening medical condition. During those hard times, the Trustees of the Richardson Foundation went out of their way to support me. They practically saved my sister’s life by arranging for me an interest-free loan for performing an indispensable surgical procedure on her. No amount of words can truly express my gratitude to them.

Things my family had to go through in the last few months have made me even more determined to pursue my goals. With life returning to normal on the family front, I have arranged with the University the resumption of my course from November 2009 onwards. The coming academic year will be very important for me. If I am able to get a first class master’s degree I will be one step closer to my objective. I am looking forward to picking up from where I left.

Five years of academic learning in Britain have brought about a myriad of positive transformations in me and changed the way I thought about life. But I think this is just the beginning of a long journey I have decided to undertake. To realize my dream of specializing in International Law, I have to put in a couple more years of hard work. Until then I can not afford to get sidetracked by family problems or any other predicament for that matter.

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