The Happiest Place on Earth Past Review

By (Environmental Analysis and Policy, Boston University) - abroad from 06/02/2012 to 07/13/2012 with

The School for Field Studies / SFS: Bhutan - Bhutan - Himalayan Studies

What did you gain/learn from your experience abroad? Was it worthwhile?
This program was absolutely worthwhile. It solidified my academic interests and has gotten me excited about the possibilities of working internationally after college. I learned so much about myself and now have an incredible appreciation for Bhutanese culture, Buddhism, and the Himalayas in general. The lessons I learned, the things I accomplished, and the people I met in Bhutan will definitely continue to influence my life for a very, very long time.

Personal Information

How much international exposure did you have prior to this program? 1 month - 6 months

Review Your Program

* Overall educational experience

Academic rigor, intensity, resources, etc.

The culture of this program is not pure academics. While we had great classroom sessions and awesome guest lectures from important officials and researchers, most of the learning on this program occurs when you're outside of the classroom experiencing Bhutan first hand. It's completely experiential - you learn while trekking at 13,000 feet, while hiking through sacred forests, while walking through Jakar and hanging out with Bhutanese students. You don't just read about research methods - you actually structure your research plan, preform interviews, and collect data on forests. The directed research experience is intensive and chaotic but you will come out of it feeling like you really accomplished something - which you then present to government officials and members of international NGOs. Knowing that you successfully contributed to Bhutan's conservation and development policies is invaluable and the type of learning that you simply can't get in a normal class in the US. At times on this program you will feel stressed about readings or that there just aren't enough hours in the day to balance the classroom academics and the experiential learning. When that happens, just keep in mind that while you do have intense classroom responsibilities, the most valuable and memorable learning experiences will occur outside the classroom. What you put into it is what you get out of it, so don't hesitate to explore or do something cultural when the opportunities arise, even if it's at the expense of not doing a reading. You'll get so much more out of the program if you just get out there and experience the uniqueness of Bhutan. That's the culture of this program.

* Host Country Program Administration

On-site administration of your program

This was the 3rd year of the SFS Bhutan program and it was incredible to hear how much the program had changed over the years. Flexibility and patience are key in Bhutan because your plans will get changed due to cultural events, weather, and pretty much anything else you can come up with (road construction, chasing ponies, "pedestrian day," etc). Our group's motto was to "Gho with the Flow" and to enjoy the surprises as they came (you'll learn what a "gho" is). If you're not a patient person, you'll probably learn patience and enjoy all of the surprises and unexpected detours. The SFS staff (especially the Student Affairs Manager and the student Intern) worked incredibly hard to steer us through the logistical chaos and juggle student desires with program requirements. The amount of activities they coordinated is really impressive and they paid a ton of attention to our feedback each day and made changes when they could. For example, they worked for weeks behind the scenes to organize a homestay so we could stay overnight in a Bhutanese family's home, and it culminated in an awesome experience in our last week. Since no one ever really goes to Bhutan, it's really difficult to know what to expect when you get there. You just need to go there with an open mind, a willingness to engage with all of the people you will meet, and an enthusiasm get the most you can out of each and every day.

* Housing:

How satisfied were you with your living arrangements?

Unreliable hot water and insects are bothersome at first, but overall they add to the experience of living in a rugged and rural setting, forcing you to appreciate the amenities of home much more. The dorm rooms on campus of the Forestry Institute are spacious and clean and you have space for relaxing and doing work in the building's common area. You also have access to basketball, volleyball, snooker, karaoke, and ping pong on campus, all of which are great for interacting with the Bhutanese trainees.

* Food:

I entered the program with the assumption that food would be a low point of my experience after having heard how spicy traditional Bhutanese dishes are. Although I never really grew accustomed to the level of spiciness, the program cooks did a stellar job of adapting to our group's taste preferences, and I always looked forward to our meals. They also worked really hard to prepare gluten free and vegetarian options for the students in our group who had dietary restrictions. If you like rice and vegetables, this program is for you.

* Social & Cultural Integration:

How integrated did you feel with the local culture?

We had the opportunity to become good friends with a group of Bhutanese students living on the campus and were also really involved in nearby communities with our service and research initiatives. Despite our busy schedule we were also able to take part in a variety of cultural activities, including monastery visits, festivals, traditional dances, and archery competitions, to name a few. You get a huge dose of Bhutanese culture every day even if you're not technically taking part in a "cultural activity." By the end of the program, I think everyone in our group felt like we had "entered" and integrated with Bhutanese culture, and coming back to the US was a culture shock.

* Health Care:

How well were health issues addressed during the program?

The rabies pre-exposure vaccination was highly recommended for the program. It's an expensive vaccine, but there are a lot of stray dogs and wild animals, so it's a good precaution. Everyone in the group gets sick for a day or two, from the change in altitude or from the new food - it's just part of the experience of living abroad and in the Himalayas.

* Safety:

Bhutan is a safe country. The SFS staff/Bhutanese colleagues do as much as they can to make sure you never get lost or in an uncomfortable situation, and to prepare you for those situations should they ever occur. It's important to remember that cultural norms are different in Bhutan and so you might find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, but SFS emphasizes cultural orientation and does a lot to prepare you for those types of scenarios.

If you could do it all over again would you choose the same program? Yes


* Money: How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?

(1 = not very easy/$200+ on food & personal expenses/week, 2.5 = $100/week, 5 = very easily/minimal cost)

There really are not many costs besides personal gifts and souvenirs, snacks, and phone minutes. You can get away with spending very little, or you can buy a lot of stuff, it's just your call. You will want to buy a lot of souvenirs.

* Was housing included in your program cost? Yes
* Was food included in your program cost? Yes
Not including program expenses, about how much money did you spend on food and other expenses each week? 70


* Did your program have a foreign language component? No
How much did the program encourage you to use the language?

0 = No encouragement, 5 = frequent encouragement to use the language

On our program we were so busy with other things that we never had time to learn or practice Dzongka beyond the basic greetings and numbers. This is not an issue, though, since nearly everyone speaks English and we usually had a Bhutanese faculty member around who could translate for us when necessary.

How would you rate your language skills at the beginning of the program? None
How would you rate your language skills at the end of the program? None

Other Program Information

* Where did you live?

Select all that apply

  • Dorm
  • Host Family
  • Hotel
* Who did you live with?

Select all that apply

  • Americans
* Who did you take classes with?

Select all that apply

  • Americans
About how many local friends did you make that you will likely keep in touch with?

A Look Back

* What did you like most about the program?
  • The people (the other students, SFS staff, and all of the Bhutanese people we met)
  • Constantly being mentally stimulated and physically active with all of the things we did and places we saw each day
  • Bhutanese culture (especially Buddhism) and the Himalayan environment
* What could be improved?
  • More free time for exploration
* What do you know now that you wish you knew before going on this program? Be aware of the type and scope of this program's research and don't go expecting to be in the field researching for the full six weeks. Don't get caught up in the specifics of what you'll be doing on the trip before you go. For example, the Directed Research topic was not set by SFS and so our professors did not even know the research focus until they arrived us in the weeks before we did, so there was no way we possibly could have known the focus of our research before we went - just that it was going to be environmentally-focused. Just go with an open mind, ready to actively engage, and know that in the end it will be a supremely rewarding experience that will stick with you forever.