The Toughest Job I’ve Ever Loved

When I applied for the Fulbright Award in Nepal I was asked by the Chair of the Women’s Studies Program at the Padma Kanya Campus of Tribhuvan University (the Women’s Campus) to teach research methods in the post baccalaureate program diploma program in Women’s Studies. I arrived in Kathmandu with the requisite materials prepared to do just that.

The only social psychologist in Nepal, Shishir Subba, had been promoted to assistant dean for research in the college of social sciences and within weeks of my arrival the word went out to the academic community that I was in the city and able to fill this newly created need. I was asked to teach personality theory in the new diploma program in counseling psychology at Tri Chandra College, the oldest college in Kathmandu, and advanced social psychology in the master’s program at the Kirtipur Campus of Tribhuvan University. Later, I also taught research methods to the master’s students in political science and conducted workshops on research methods for the psychiatry residents at the teaching hospital and doctoral students in the social sciences at Tribhuvan University.

It became increasingly apparent that most of the faculty teaching these courses had inadequate training in the subject matter at the level we would deem appropriate for graduate education. Consequently, I found it very difficult to say no, because if I did not teach, no one else was available.

Fortunately, the only course for which I was not well prepared was personality theory. It was my cognate in graduate school, but that wasn’t enough to offset the fact that it had been 25 years since I taught the course. But, technology came to the rescue! I e-mailed a colleague who forwarded book chapters and overheads. It helped that the theories have remained constant since I last taught them. It helped even more, that I, unlike my colleagues and students, had access to library resources via the Internet; my home institution — Auburn University — subscribes to the databases on which we have all come to depend so heavily for researching the literature. It was painful to realize that this resource is not available in Nepal because the university does not have the finances to subscribe to such services as PsychInfo. In a country where books are difficult to obtain, not having access to the world’s literature via internet is a great handicap to scholarship. I spent time teaching my students and colleagues how to use Google and other search engines to find articles written by authors whose work they knew, but that literature search technique is less than satisfactory.

Of course it is possible to access individual scholar’s recent work directly if they have linked their publications to their Web pages. If that became a routine practice, how easy it could be to increase access to the world’s literature. Please link your recent important manuscripts to your web pages today!

Virginia O'Leary with women students

Virginia O'Leary (center) with women at a community center. The women migrated from rural areas to Kathmandu and have been attending a community literacy program. They can now read and write and were about to begin a course in hairdressing to provide them a means of support, as they cannot farm in the city. Their migration was in response to the insurgency in Nepal that has resulted in 12,500 deaths since 1996.

I rose at 4:40 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays for my class on the PK campus which met from 6:00 to 7:45 am. Women have many familial responsibilities and are not able to attend night classes, even if their husbands would allow them to be on the streets unescorted after dusk. As a result, post-baccalaureate classes meet in the early morning to allow employed students to attend class prior to the beginning of their work day, usually 10:00 am.

As I learned Nepali and began to have a deeper appreciation for the culture around me, I was confronted with challenges I had not anticipated. For example, in the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal, there is no link between education and outcome. The origins of this cultural reality can be traced to the 14th century, when no one other than the priests could read and the only purpose for reading was to access sacred texts. When this access was broadened to include upper caste men, education came to signify the privilege of being born high caste. Sadly, this association between education and superiority remains. However, there is no link between education and outcome in Hindu fatalism. It is hard to motivate students in a world where what you do is of virtually no significance. The lack of a link between agency and outcome is further reinforced by the Nepali language. In English, my description of the act of dropping a pen, would be “I dropped the pen.” There is no literal translation for that sentence in Nepali, where the same event would be described as “The pen dropped.” The attributional (and cognitive) consequences of this difference in language are undoubtedly significant (and I am currently working on a study with a Nepalese colleague to explore them).

Still, there were students who were eager to take advantage of my knowledge and skills. They had seldom been asked to contribute to class discussions or to think independently and offer their own interpretations or critiques and they found the opportunity difficult but intriguing. I am now in communication with a number of them weekly and believe that a bright future for higher education in Nepal lies in their openness to new ideas once presented and their enthusiasm for entering the developed world as an equal member of the global community of scholars.

Although a number of students and colleagues were pleased to have me available to share my knowledge and responded eagerly when I asked how I could assist them, many others withdrew with resentment. They had no interest in “getting it right,” only in ensuring their position as the purveyors of knowledge. This was the case despite my best efforts to cast my offer in terms of my love for their country and my commitment to its future as an equal at the global table. Often, my elation over feeling certain I was making a critical difference in the lives and educations of students in the morning would be supplanted by a profound sense of defeat that afternoon, when some other encounter made it apparent that neither I nor my training was wanted or valued. It was like riding a rollercoaster that rose and fell so quickly my head snapped!

My six months in Kathmandu was very tough, but I loved (nearly) every minute of the most extraordinary experience of my professional life. I recommend a Fulbright in a developing country to anyone who wants to be of service, who has a taste for adventure and who has a high tolerance for frustration.

Teaching in a country with a fatalistic culture is not easy, but it can be immensely rewarding. I spent the first half of this year in Kathmandu, Nepal on a teaching/research Fulbright Award for Senior Scholars. It was one of the most exhilarating, exasperating, complex, intense, and difficult periods of my career. I would do it again in a heart beat!

The Fulbright Scholar Program is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State and administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars.

Fulbright grants offer a variety of educational activities, primarily university lecturing, advanced research, graduate study, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools. The program has had more than 250,000 participants since its inception.

For more information on the Fulbright program, visit www.cies.org or http://exchanges.state.gov/education/fulbright.

Observer Vol.18, No.12 December, 2005

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