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Yeshi's future: Serving Tibetan refugees

Tenzin Yeshi began his graduate journey in a familiar business field, but found his life’s purpose in education.

Yeshi enrolled in UW’s graduate program in accounting when he arrived in Laramie in 2007, expecting to continue an already successful career in that profession after graduation. But he knew that his interests; and future - were somewhere else. After one semester, Tenzin transferred to UW's doctoral program in adult and postsecondary education.

"Education is the one area where I will be better able to continue to help the Tibetan people," he says. "I realize that money is not everything. For me, what is more important is how I can contribute to my Tibetan community."

Yeshi wasn't completely unfamiliar with education or with the educational challenges that his peers face. Before coming to the U.S. to study, he spent three years as an internal auditor assigned to Tibetan refugee schools in India, Nepal and Bhutan. For another five years, he was serving as under secretary and later, deputy secretary of education, helping Tibetan students find opportunities to study in other countries, when he met former UW Graduate School Dean Don Roth. But the decision to pursue doctoral work in adult education represented both a shift in career direction and a personally transformative learning experience.

"When I moved into the field of education, I realized that it is not only about teaching but it's also about developing yourself as an individual," Yeshi says. Tenzin's dissertation research explored the skills education for adult Tibetan immigrants in the United States. He found that, despite having comparatively high levels of education, this population faces significant challenges to successful life in the U.S.

"Many of the Tibetans are struggling with their life, with their work, and also with their continuous learning in the United States," he says. Because of gaps between their educational backgrounds and the needs of the American job market, many are working in low-paying jobs with long hours. They lack the skills needed for a new life for themselves and their families. "Many of them do not realize the need for new skills to achieve some kind of upward mobility in the United States," Yeshi explains. "They are really content with what they learned from India, trying to use those to get a better job here."

Language also can be a barrier, according to Yeshi’s study. While most refugees are comfortable with written English, they had few opportunities to practice speaking it. The result is lower confidence and lower proficiency. Adding to the challenge are negative self-perceptions of themselves as adult learners, that they are "too old" to learn, and the assumption that their need for learning ended when they completed formal education in India.

Tenzin's study fills a significant gap in adult education research generally and research on the Tibetan refugee population specifically.

"There are very limited studies of skills education in the United States, both for the American population as well as for immigrant populations," he says. "I believe my study is the first and may help to provide solutions or recommendations for further research."

Beyond contributing to the scholarly discussion, Yeshi's research has sparked clarity about how he can individually contribute to the health and viability of the U.S.'s Tibetan refugee community, by developing and providing skills education that fit their needs. He also sees opportunity in engaging members of that community to help each other.

"During this whole dissertation journey, I came into contact with some of the most highly trained Tibetan professionals in the United States," he says. "They are willing to provide volunteer services for some kind of skills education to Tibetan immigrants." A more indirect outcome of his doctoral work: increased visibility as a contributor to blogs and Tibetan news sites.

"I started writing in 2009," he says. "That is when I was at UW. My writing stems from UW. I think it is mainly because, when I see the growth in myself, when I see different perspectives from looking at a particular topic, I see an an obligation to share it."

After successfully defending his dissertation in November, Yeshi is now focusing on job opportunities that will allow him to continue his research and work with the Tibetan refugee population. On the research front, he plans to expand his study to new groups within the larger population, to better understand the broader learning needs of Tibetan immigrants.

 

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