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January 20, 2011

LRDC prof shaping Bhutan’s first private college

Long-time Pitt professor of psychology Janet W. Schofield, senior scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC), is 18 months into a two-year leave on a special — and unusual — mission in Bhutan, a landlocked country about the size of Maryland in the Himalayans.

Schofield went there to help launch the country’s first private higher education institution — Royal Thimphu College, which opened in August 2009 and now serves more than 600 students, with an additional 300 students expected in August.

Nestled between India and Chinese Tibet, Bhutan has a mainly rural population of about 800,000 and is mostly

The latitude of the country is similar to Miami’s, but the altitude — much of it is about 2,300 meters above sea level — means most of the country has chilly, though not frigid, winters.

The government of Bhutan recently became a constitutional monarchy, adding a Parliament to co-rule with the king. The official religion is Buddhism and while there are several languages spoken throughout the country, Tsongkha, a sister language to Tibetan, is the official governmental language. English is the most common language of instruction.

Royal Thimphu College (RTC), located about 10 kilometers outside the capital of Thimphu in the western part of Bhutan, sits on a picturesque 25-acre campus, a gift from the royal family.

RTC’s campus, when completed later this year, will consist of 34 buildings as well as athletic fields and courts, an indoor multi-purpose hall, an auditorium and a gymnasium. The college also has a well-equipped IT center with more than 125 computers. It has its own source of treated water and dedicated electricity supply, although there is no central heating.

About 80 percent of the current library holdings came to RTC courtesy of the Pitt community, which donated more than 1,700 books. Schofield approached the departments that offer programs similar to those that are taught in the new college; faculty and students in economics, English, sociology, political science, psychology, LRDC and environmental studies contributed generously, Schofield said.

She and her husband, Douglas, a business consultant, are serious world travelers, having visited 90 countries. They first visited Bhutan 20 years ago as tourists and fell in love with the country and its friendly people, she said.

Four years ago, they decided to revisit the country that so impressed them earlier. On the second visit, the couple met Tenzing Yonten, a Bhutanese government official who had been schooled at Berkeley and Yale and wanted to establish the first private college in his native country.

“At the time Tenzing was in the midst of a very intensive planning effort for the college and he had a planning book that must have been 2-3 inches thick,” Schofield explained. “He asked us to look at it after he learned I was a college professor and my husband did his dissertation on planning for colleges and universities. We were very impressed with the plan, and I think he appreciated our comments.”

At that point the Schofields caught the new-college bug and agreed to help in establishing it. For the past two years, they have served as senior advisers and professors, part of the core management team that includes Yonten as the director, a registrar (the equivalent of the dean of student affairs) and a dean (the equivalent of the dean of academic affairs). The college has about 35 faculty members from six countries, and is seeking to hire faculty and staff in most of the programs.

While back in Pittsburgh this month on Royal Thimphu College’s winter break, Schofield discussed her Bhutan project with University Times staff writer Peter Hart.


University Times: What was your role in setting up the new college?

Janet Schofield: Both my husband and I are the right-hand people to the other core administrators. We either do what they say needs to be done or we go to them with ideas about what needs to be done and how it could be done. We have a lot of flexibility in that regard.

We do all sorts of things, which is what’s made it very interesting. I’ve done everything from drafting the faculty and student handbooks, to mentoring faculty, to setting the grading policy, to influencing the curriculum — all sorts of things.

Because it’s a new institution you have to consider all the things that are taken for granted at a place like Pitt. I drafted the constitution for the student government. I’ve helped set up student clubs. I was in charge of faculty orientation. I designed the survey for teaching evaluations.

What has your husband’s role been?

My husband does not teach there, but he does head the business program, sort of the department chair.

Janet Schofield, left, and her husband Douglas Schofield in Bhutan. The Schofields first visited Bhutan 20 years ago as tourists and have spent the last two years in Bhutan helping to develop the country’s first private college.

Janet Schofield, left, and her husband Douglas Schofield in Bhutan. The Schofields first visited Bhutan 20 years ago as tourists and have spent the last two years in Bhutan helping to develop the country’s first private college.

He does all sorts of business and financial things, everything from contracts to insurance to thinking about how to make sure the tuition cash flow will accommodate the interest that needs to be paid off on the loan. He reviews government policies. He set up the financial control system. He will say, ‘How are people going to pay tuition?’ — when people can come in literally with stacks of money, because the banking system is [unsophisticated].

My husband and I were both involved with setting up an exchange program with Wheaton College in Massachusetts. This past semester they sent eight students to our college. I had three of the students in my class. Those students were terrific and had a great time, and Wheaton is thinking of expanding that number.

Why Wheaton? The current king spent some time at Wheaton, and some Bhutanese students in the U.S. — and there aren’t many — go to Wheaton because of that historical connection.

My husband worked on the financial, logistic arrangements.

The school also sent one faculty member and I helped her prepare for what awaited her.

So, you’ve been teaching at the new college?

I’ve taught one and a half classes so far. I taught one social psychology course for second-year students, which is what I teach here at Pitt, and I taught half of a freshman course that’s outside the normal curriculum called Introduction to College Learning. That course is intended to improve students’ writing skills and their general academic skills — finding information, taking notes — and to help them adjust to being away from home, living communally, those sorts of things.

How does the experience compare to teaching here?

It’s very different. The teaching load would be considered very heavy by Pitt’s standards. Many of the classes meet five days a week; that’s a lot of class time.

The classes are all the same size, 40 students. The students come from very different backgrounds. Some went to high school in India at quite good international schools; some went to schools in little tiny rural areas with multi-age classrooms and very little in the way of resources.

To give you a sense of how isolated some students have been, one of the students wrote in her essay that when she went to elementary school, her mother walked with her the first day two and a half hours each way, which is quite common.

She said she was so astonished that there were other children there because she thought the kids in her village were the only children in the world!

Someone else wrote an article about how their village had been terrified when they were “attacked” by a huge bird — it turned out to be an Indian army helicopter that had to make an emergency landing.

But the majority of our students come from towns and villages that have television and the Internet. Facebook is popular among the students.

The main academic building of the new college, one of 34 buildings that are complete or under construction.

The main academic building of the new college, one of 34 buildings that are complete or under construction.

Is having a college diploma a major achievement in Bhutan?

Historically, a college degree really gave you a privileged position because there were so few people with one that they tended to go into the government, which gave you respect, prestige, security, a certain amount of power.

Things are changing now. The government can’t continue to expand at the rate that the educated population is expanding. That’s why, for example, the college has a good-sized business program and we’re trying to prepare people for other things as well.

There is still a leftover sense that a college degree is what you need to be set for life. That’s increasingly becoming untrue in the students’ lives, so we’re setting up a career counseling office.

Students at Royal Thimphu College assemble in traditional Bhutanese garb for an informational session.

Students at Royal Thimphu College assemble in traditional Bhutanese garb for an informational session.

Do you think about that as a teacher?

Yes, you have to. In fact one of the things I did in my Introduction to College Learning class was to get a copy of the civil service exam to show it to the students. First of all, they’re pretty hard. Second, they do involve both a lot of general knowledge and a lot of fairly complex essay questions.

Since I was teaching writing, I wanted the students to see writing was not just an academic skill, but to recognize it’s something they need to get to where many of them want to go.

And with the general knowledge I tried to get students to read newspapers and magazines and realize that it’s not only what they learn in classes, but it’s what they can do and what they know as a person that also matters.

Is the student-teacher relationship different from that in the United States?

Yes, very different. It is interesting how students relate to teachers. Because of Bhutan’s history, with the monarchy and this almost feudal-type system, respect and authority are very important. For example, students’ normal inclination when they see a teacher is to stand up. So if they’re sitting talking and you walk by, they will stand up and say, “Good morning.”

Because the college is more informal than a lot of places in the country, over time you see less of that because it’s not something we require.

It’s also not uncommon for students to speak in very soft tones and even cover their mouth when they talk. I think they don’t want to be breathing on someone of higher status. Because they think it’s disrespectful to talk too loud, that sometimes makes it hard to teach. These habits are deeply engrained and so it’s hard to get students to change.

If I’m walking on campus with a laptop, students will run up and grab it and say, “Madam, madam, let me carry it.” It’s not because of my age — that’s all part of honoring the teacher.

RTC founder and director Tenzing Yonten, head of table, leads a management meeting. Janet and Douglas Schofield, in Western dress, are senior advisers to the new college.

RTC founder and director Tenzing Yonten, head of table, leads a management meeting. Janet and Douglas Schofield, in Western dress, are senior advisers to the new college.

I advise the student government and quite to my surprise they decided to organize a teacher’s day celebration — all on their own. It was a college-wide event. They gave presents to all the teachers. Some of them made testimonial speeches: “This teacher has done this, and is so good to me.” There were songs and dances. There is a tradition of celebrating teacher’s day, but they made a big thing of it.

That doesn’t mean the students always read all the assignments. (laughs)

Individuals vary a lot. We have some very, very excellent highly motivated students and, like any place, we have some that are not so motivated.

Teaching students from a variety of educational backgrounds has to be a challenge.

Yes it is. But that’s true anywhere. We tried to do some things to deal with that. We have a Learning Resources Center where students who need extra help with writing are referred. This year, as a result of our experience from last year, we sent out math workbooks — after students had been admitted but before they arrived — to show students the level of math they would need for their particular program.

We also have a non-credit, but required course for freshmen, which is an introduction to IT. About half the students when they come are familiar with computers, but “familiar” covers a large range. There are many who have little or no experience. With books difficult to come by, students have to learn to rely on more web-based resources.

Faculty are available for tutoring. There is an effort to make it so that everyone has everything they need. But still the differences in students’ background and preparation are substantial.

That’s true too with English facility. The students — almost all of them — speak English very comfortably and fluently. With writing, though, you can tell that even for the best of them that English is a second language, or even in some cases a third or fourth language.

You mentioned student clubs. What kinds of clubs?

Sports are very popular, especially “football,” which we call soccer. Basketball is popular. Badminton seems to be popular. We have intramurals. In fact, we even have faculty-student games. And there’s the cultural club. The majority of its program is typical traditional Bhutanese dance. But people do love Western music and also Korean music.

Is there a heavy Buddhist influence at the college?

There are courses in Bhutanese history and culture that would show that.

The most obvious linkage is that at certain times there will be ceremonies, which are very important culturally, in which the [Buddhist] monks are the primary actors. For example, there’s a custom in Bhutan you need to hold a ceremony to make any new place a propitious place for you to live, to make sure that the spirits are placated. It’s a blessing, plus making sure that those who were there before are not unhappy with your being there now.

Since my husband and I were there for four or five months before the opening of the college, we were the first people to live at the college. When the apartment became ready we moved in and they had a monk come and throw rice and bless the rooms, and put up a white scarf, which is a sign of welcome and respect.

It’s incredibly different but there’s a lot of commonality as well. Sometimes things surprise you. I woke up one morning and I saw all these cars decorated with what we think of almost as Christmas garlands. It was the celebration of the god of tools. And cars are a tool. Little altars had been set up around campus with butter lamps, pictures of the king and pipe wrenches and hacksaws on the altar.

It’s surprising but on the other hand it reflects the human tendency toward religion and spirituality.

Did you experience a lot of cultural shock in Bhutan coming from a Western background?

Not as much as when we were there 20 years ago. I remember when we first went to Thimphu, we had some pictures of Downtown Pittsburgh, and one of them had a skyscraper, and we were asked, “What’s that?” and I said “That’s where people work” and the person looked at me and said, “But wouldn’t it take them a couple of hours to walk up there in the morning?” So even the idea of an elevator was not something that people had. That’s not that long ago.

If you go back further, in the 1950s there were still serfs, even slaves. It really was different. Bhutan by preference and policy was an extremely isolated country. People there will say about their own country: “We went from Medieval times to modern times in 60 years.”

How about modern conveniences, such as cars, televisions grocery stores?

At the college, some of us have cars — probably less than half. We do have city bus service and a couple college cars to use. There are a lot of Indian cars.

There is a national TV station, which mainly has news and some features. CNN and BBC are available. The Indian channels are the most common.

There are some American movies shown at a couple movie theatres in Thimphu. The American films tend to be more violent and overly sexual than customary to the Bhutanese. There even is a modest size movie industry that reflects the culture, mostly producing love stories. Two of them were filmed at the college.

There aren’t grocery stores. There’s a large vegetable market, probably as big as a city block, with two stories. A lot of the food is imported from India.

Did the country’s cuisine take some getting used to?

The national dish is ema datsi, which is chili and cheese and it is hot. The cheese is like a cottage cheese and the chili spices it up.

People will say in Bhutan, “Chili is a vegetable, not a spice.” That’s the dish everybody has every day, and if they don’t they wish they did.

How would you characterize the Bhutanese people?

The people are wonderfully friendly. There’s a tradition of hospitality in Bhutan, because it’s so rural. If we go walking in the countryside, in the rice fields, people will come out, they’ll talk to you, they’ll invite you into their house for some tea or some of the local beer or locally brewed liquor. They’ll ask to have their picture taken with you.


If Janet Schofield’s experiences at the fledgling Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan sound intriguing, she’d like to hear from you. She is a faculty recruiter for the college.

In addition to looking for an IT manager and a librarian, the college needs faculty in economics, political science, sociology, English, IT and business, among other fields. Faculty need at least a master’s degree. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone who’s interested in that part of Asia or just anyone who wants to do something different. It could be a great experience for people here at Pitt.”

For more information, contact Schofield at

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