Overcoming obstacles to illuminate Bhutanese education

From the rural landscapes of Bhutan to the global stage of academia: the Inspiring Journey of Dr. Ugyen Tshering

It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Dr Ugyen Tshering’s journey so remarkable- whether it’s the fact that he’s now attained a doctorate, despite only starting formal schooling at 12, or how he worked nightly as a COVID-19 cleaner at the Canberra Hospital for a number of years while studying, clocking a mere five hours of sleep at the best of times.

Ugyen faced nearly insurmountable challenges to achieve an education, with the hope of improving the school system in his home country of Bhutan. Now he also hopes that his story can inspire others who are struggling.

In the tale of Dr. Ugyen Tshering, one finds a narrative that transcends borders and resonates with the universal pursuit of knowledge amidst adversity. From humble beginnings in rural Bhutan to the halls of academia in Australia, Ugyen’s journey embodies resilience, determination, and the unwavering pursuit of education.

Ugyen’s story unfolds against the backdrop of a childhood marked by scarcity and limited access to formal schooling. Raised in a remote village without educational infrastructure, his journey commenced at the age of 12, when the opening of a neighboring school offered a glimmer of hope. Despite initial skepticism from his father, Ugyen’s relentless pursuit of learning led him to seize the opportunity, embarking on a path that defied conventional timelines.

“I come from a very rural part of Bhutan. My whole village had to be resettled later near the India-Bhutan border because of its remoteness. My village didn’t have any schools,” he says. “As the eldest of four children, I helped my parents with the cattle.”

When the government opened a new school in a neighbouring village, many of Ugyen’s friends were set to go there. His father was sceptical of his learning abilities at this age, but Ugyen persisted.

“I begged him: Give me a chance,” Ugyen said. And so, he was allowed to start kindergarten, at the age of 12.

“The school was very accepting. Anyone who wanted to get admitted was welcome, regardless of their age. There were many who were older than me,” Ugyen says.

He quickly progressed through primary school learning. “I enjoyed every minute, I was curious,” Ugyen says.

As he immersed himself in the classroom, Ugyen’s thirst for knowledge proved insatiable. Balancing the demands of study with the necessity of supporting his family, he toiled on construction sites and took up odd jobs during school breaks, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to his education.

His academic journey took him beyond the borders of Bhutan, as he secured a government scholarship to pursue higher education in India. In Year 12, he won a government scholarship to study in India, where he attained a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pune. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in English, Ugyen returned home with a fervent desire to contribute to his nation’s educational landscape.

Joining the ranks of educators at Sherubtse College, Ugyen found himself thrust into a role that demanded more than mere proficiency in his subject. Recognizing the need to deepen his understanding of pedagogy, he embarked on a quest for knowledge that would eventually lead him to the shores of Australia.

“I studied English as a second language-then all of a sudden, I was expected to teach it,” Ugyen says.

“I didn’t want to do a disservice to my profession and to my students as their teacher, so I started working harder. That is what inspired me to do my masters.”

Ugyen studied a Master of Teaching English as a Second Language from Flinders University, South Australia.

Enrolling in a Master of Teaching English as a Second Language program at Flinders University, Ugyen’s academic pursuits took on a newfound urgency. Driven by a desire to bridge the gap between international standards and local practices, he delved into the intricacies of critical reading, a skill he deemed essential for the 21st-century learner.

Ever curious to learn more, Ugyen began looking into opportunities to complete a PhD¬¬-he wanted to contribute to academia and publish research that could have an impact on the Bhutanese schooling system.

“I struggled a lot as a reader and as a learner of English. That challenged me to go beyond what I knew,” Ugyen says.

“I realised that there were many ways to learn and to teach English-this is what inspired me to become a scholar.”

However, his path to academic excellence was fraught with challenges, exacerbated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world grappled with uncertainty, Ugyen found himself balancing the demands of doctoral research with the responsibilities of a frontline worker, serving as a COVID-19 cleaner at Canberra Hospital.

His shifts started at 10.30pm, and he worked until 6.30am, six nights a week.

“I would get home, clean up and have breakfast. Then start my reading, writing and meetings with my supervisors. Sometimes I would only get two to three hours of sleep,” Ugyen says.

Undeterred by the formidable obstacles that threatened to derail his progress, Ugyen persevered, drawing strength from the support of his family and the unwavering belief in his mission. His journey culminated in the attainment of a doctorate, a testament to his resilience and tenacity in the face of adversity.

As Ugyen stood on the stage, clad in the regalia of academic achievement, he dedicated his success to those who had stood by him throughout his journey. With his family cheering from the audience, he acknowledged the myriad challenges that had tested his resolve, emerging stronger and more determined than ever before.

On his graduation day in March 2024, Ugyen’s wife and family cheered him on from the crowd as he crossed the stage to accept his testamur. Dressed in the customary yellow and blue regalia of a PhD graduate, Ugyen dedicated his achievements to them, and to each obstacle that stood in his way.

“I faced challenges, but all of these challenges motivated me to work harder.”

Today, Dr. Ugyen Tshering stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration, his story serving as a reminder of the transformative power of education. From the rural landscapes of Bhutan to the global stage of academia, his journey exemplifies the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, illuminating a path towards a brighter future for generations to come.

By Tashi Namgyal, Thimphu