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Happiness in the Himalayas

Studying abroad might bring to mind some heavy hitters in Europe: England’s theaters, France’s cuisine, Italy’s art history. 

But according to Chelsea Ferrell ’05, who works in global operations for Tufts University, those in search of a perspective shift might do well to extend their horizons farther east, to Bhutan.

Bhutan, a small South Asian kingdom bordered by India and Tibet, has historically been closed to outsiders—citizens had no television or internet access until 1999, and as part of their visas, tourists have had to pay a daily fee of up to $300.

Still, Ferrell, a Swarthmore political science major who went on to earn a master’s in social anthropology from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, was drawn to Bhutan because of her interest in Tibetan language and studies.

While living in Nepal and working with a Tibetan studies program, she helped run a one-month excursion through the kingdom in 2012 ... and immediately wanted to return.

“The high-altitude, cliffside monasteries set along Himalayan backdrops were breathtaking,” she says. “The cultural and social norms were completely different from anything I’d previously seen.”

Inspired, she found a job facilitating a study-abroad program for the nonprofit School for Field Studies and spent eight months living in the Bhutanese village of Jakar.

“Very few expats have been able to travel to or live in Bhutan,” she says, “and if they have, it’s typically three days in Thimphu and Paro,” the capital and a neighboring historic town.

She later was an instructor in Myanmar with Where There Be Dragons, the experiential program that combines cultural immersion with education in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Drawing on her experiences, Ferrell conceived of a new Dragons program in Bhutan and built a partnership with local officials to make it a reality.

The immersion empowers visitors to experience the breadth and beauty of Bhutan—from lush green rice paddies to mountain villages to valleys of black-necked cranes.

Ferrell is proud that her work has made the country more accessible to explorers … and not just those who can afford the often-pricey travel-related expenses.

In fact, Ferrell recently facilitated an agreement with a Bhutanese environmental institute to create Dragons scholarships for high school and college students who wish to visit the country.

She’s also helped make possible some of the first truly immersive experiences in Bhutan: In June, Ferrell arranged weeklong rural homestays for Dragons in the central part of the kingdom, a region nearly untouched by Western tourism outside of the fall festival (tsechu) season.

“This program focuses on Bumthang, in what is often referred to as the cultural heartland of Bhutan, where a lot of the historical and religious sites are,” she says. “It also allows students to experience village farming and herding traditions that reach back for generations. That’s what makes this experience so unique—getting to interact with local families and live as they live, without the mediation of a guide.”

This is a huge gain for students interested in truly broadening their cultural horizons: A Buddhist country, Bhutan measures the well-being of its population using the metric of “gross national happiness.”

“The Bhutanese believe that fulfillment of duty is happiness. Day-to-day basics are happiness. You don’t need more than what you already have,” she says. “It’s all about letting your mindset slowly shift, that what you have is more than enough. It’s all about how you view and share it.”