TYLP: Ngawang Sangdrol and the story of all Tibetans

When first joining the 2021 TYLP program as the intern for the program, I expected to have an in depth discovery of my Tibetan cultural heritage and identity, however I did not expect on the last day to have such a memorable breath-taking speaker; that being Ngawang Sangdrol.

At a personal level the story of Ngawang Sangdrol is one which resonates to my innate Tibetan core, a story of suffering which unfortunately resembles too many other stories from the region which Tibetans once roamed so freely on. Now on the eve of the CCP’s 100-year anniversary, the Potala Palace was blanketed in a suffocating red banner of Communism and the necessity for the individual life stories of my Tibetan brothers and sisters to be heard becomes increasingly dire by each hour.

The story of Ngawang Sangdrol is one of advocacy, pain, and the unfortunate lack of justice/rightfulness that is inherent to the Chinese Communist Party. Imprisoned by the Chinese government at the young age of 13, an age at which most American children are barely entering middle school, for peacefully demonstrating against the Chinese occupation of the historically Tibetan land, Ngawang Sangdrol didn’t give up on her Tibetan identity, rather she used her unique situation being inside a Chinese prison to contribute to the Tibetan movement by continuing to protest within prison. This would culminate in a number of significant consequential achievements such as the moving of freedom songs out of Drapchi Prison, and an energetic platform from which she spread her meaningful life story/message to act as a voice for those who may not have the same opportunity.

The ability for an individual to take a scenario so precarious as imprisonment in a Chinese Communist prison and to turn that situation into a vast opportunity to assist her heritage-defined movement demonstrates a level of mental stability and perseverance that is superhuman. Furthermore, as a Tibetan American hearing this level of perseverance, especially when coming from a privileged position as many Tibetan Americans do, is perspective-altering as the relativity/juxtaposition of our situations motivates me to pursue my own ambitions and goals.

For many young Tibetan Americans these stories are generalized with rare circumstances for true personal meaningful stories from Tibetans within Tibet to be shared in a one on one setting, this leads to a greater point as seen throughout societal history the passage of wisdom and knowledge from the older generations to the younger ones is crucial in the sustenance of said society, whether that be due to the relevancy of the pure information in daily life or for the contextual relativity that said knowledge may bring to younger generations struggling for a sense of identity.

For Ngawang Sangdrol and the greater Tibetan society the importance of family is crucial, and through her story we learned the struggles of Tibetan families within Tibet, the choices they must make between freedom and culture and how those choices overlap into the lives their children and their children will leave. Tibetans possess a bright and vibrant culture, one which has thrived in the face of turmoil over the past sixty years, and now as we enter into a new age of Tibetan history, that being the rise of the first generation of Tibetan Americans into adulthood, the importance of the historical anecdotes that the older generations provide us must never be forgotten and must be kept guarded closely to our hearts at all times.

If we lose our history, we lose our identity, and if we lose our identity, we lose Tibet. This is why Ngawang Sangdrol la’s story resonated so heavily, because it is the story of all Tibetans.

By Tenzin Yonten Tsering, TYLP 2021

TYLP, an experience that will stick with me forever

I’ve always struggled with my Tibetan-American identity, never really feeling fully a part of either. Being born in America as the daughter of Tibetan refugees has greatly influenced my worldview and interpretation of my own responsibilities as a Tibetan-American. Unlike my parents and the older generations of Tibetans, I didn’t grow up in a refugee settlement or witness the difficult realities displaced people face. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was given a golden spoon in my mouth, but I was provided a spoon that was crafted from the struggle and resilience that the older generation of Tibetans endured. As a result, I have access to a plethora of opportunities and education that my parents didn’t.

Witnessing the silence of the international community on the Tibet issue has inspired me to pursue a career in international relations and public service. When I found out I had been accepted into the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program, I was excited to connect with other Tibetans and learn more about how I could best contribute to the Tibet movement. Coming from a small Tibetan community in Chicago, the idea of meeting other Tibetan-American youth across the country was one I always wished for. Based on my experience doing college remotely for an entire year, I was hesitant about participating in a virtual program. Despite entering the program with low expectations, I left the TYLP with an unforgettable experience and invaluable connections.

Through TYLP I was able to meet a variety of people in public service and learn about their connection to the Tibet cause. Although the program was only one week, I was able to participate in a US State department simulation, lobby for Tibet, talk to diplomats, and meet the people behind the human rights reports I’ve been quoting for years. Most notably, I met fellow Tibetan-Americans in public service. Considering that I had never met a Tibetan working in public service, I was surprised to meet four incredibly inspiring Tibetan Americans making change and working in the federal government. Their support and willingness to mentor and guide us through a career in public service was empowering.

Even though all of the sessions taught me something new, the first and last sessions were the most memorable. In the first session, Bhuchung Tsering la asked our cohort (something along the lines of) “What is your country?” Every single member of my cohort said “Tibet”. When Bhuchung la pointed out that almost all of the participants were born and raised in America, we all fell silent. Being American comes with its privileges and as TIBETAN AMERICANS we must utilize that privilege to uplift the concerns of those inside Tibet. I left that call with a whole new perspective on the Tibet issue and even some closure to questions I had with my own Tibetan American identity. The last session was equally as impactful. Hearing Ngawang Sangdrol la speak about her life in Lhasa and the lack of basic fundamental rights in Tibet was disheartening. My grandmother was born and raised in Lhasa, so listening to Sangdrol la’s story of resistance was inspiring.

While the long hours staring at a screen wasn’t ideal, the lessons I took away from each session and the people I met through TYLP is an experience that will stick with me forever.

By Sonam Rikha, TYLP 2021

The Feeling of Empowerment: My experience at TYLP

I swapped hours of doing administrative work in front of a computer for hours of intensive and completely eye-opening and insightful workshops, speaker events, and teachings relating to how Tibet fits in U.S politics today and how Tibetan Americans (and Tibetans), like myself, can contribute to the chant and mission statement we all grew up saying . . . how we can contribute to a “Free Tibet!”

I came into this week thinking I would learn the basics – What is going on in Tibet? How does China oppress Tibetans? And what can the U.S and people around the world do to make our chants of “free Tibet” a reality. I did in fact learn all this, but something that is more cliché, and equally important, that I gained through the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program is a sense of belonging, empowerment, and an experience of humbleness. Though I grew up in a large Tibetan community, I felt this new sense of world-wide community that Tibetans are so fortunate to have. Though we do not have a physical piece of Earth that is recognized as our homeland by some people in power, the places we have come to inhabit all makeup another type of home. A home that is built upon the restless and concrete backs of our grandmothers and grandfathers and the generations of Tibetans that came before our own. From the East Coast to the West Coast, and all the land in between, I was able to (virtually) meet truly outstanding Tibetans from across the United States that helped create a sense of this world-wide Tibetan community.

The feeling of empowerment that I felt came to actualization as I listened to Tibetans who worked in the government, and those who served in their own unique ways, give talks about their experiences in public service. This sense of empowerment comes from seeing Tibetan representation within many different career paths, that I (in my personal experience) am not often exposed to. If there is no space on the table, I now have confirmation and evidence that Tibetans can make the space for themselves, and our community, in spaces where important decisions are being made – and in doing so also making positive impacts within different career fields.

My time as a Tibetan Youth Leadership participant also humbled me – I still have so much to learn, not just in terms of the Tibetan language itself, but in terms of personal growth that will allow me to become a version of myself that is equipped to make active change, no matter how small. Though much is still a work in progress, I have learned that this does not mean I cannot contribute to my communities, it is not an exclusive relationship – one can make a positive impact in the world and still be working on oneself. I have learned through the amazing speakers and experiences that ICT was able to provide me with, that I can make important changes and positive impacts in my community while also learning and growing as a person.

I have learned so much about myself, my hopes and goals, and my Tibetan community through this experience provided by ICT. I truly think that any Tibetan who finds themselves wanting to learn and grow in any area of their life, would benefit from this program and the amazing people they will meet and get to learn from through it.

Thank you to all the dedicated and hardworking ICT staff that came together to make this program truly an invaluable experience!

By Tenzin Chodon Dorje, TYLP 2021

An exciting and productive week of ICT’s Tibetan Youth Leadership Program

Participants of the TYLP 2019 with Mr. Tenzin N. Tethong, VOA Tibetan Director and former Chairman of the Tibetan Cabinet as well as president of ICT, and ICT President Matteo Mecacci.

First, I would like to share a big warm thank you to all the sponsors, supporters and staff members at ICT who made this program possible. Without their endless support, hard work and dedication none of this would have been possible. I am forever grateful for receiving such an amazing opportunity to attend the 2019 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program. This exciting and productive week flew by and I wouldn’t want to trade this experience of being able to meet and interact with extraordinary members in the community who have contributed greatly to the Tibetan issue with any other.

One aspect I enjoyed most about this program was gaining exposure to grasp a better understanding of how the American political system works, in order to help us further enhance our methods on improving the current situation in Tibet. Listening to distinguished professionals working on foreign policy issues and sharing their stories and experience greatly allowed me to put things into perspective as well as see that there is still more that we can do to create change. Another aspect of this program which I appreciated greatly was the fact that we all came together with a shared ambition and purpose in wanting to make an impact for Tibet despite our different backgrounds in field of study.

I believe that it is crucial that in order to be effective leaders in our community one must have both an educated mind and heart. I find it really important that everyone prospers and thrives in whatever field they’re studying so that there is a solid base to start from. I encourage everyone to put their mind to whatever it is that they want to study and do so with great dedication. I found it very captivating how all my fellow participants and I are all studying different things in our universities such as nursing, economics, finance, psychology and etc. because it makes our drive so much more productive and powerful. The fact that we can each contribute something unique to the table makes fighting for our cause so much more engaging.

Attending ICT’s week long Tibetan Youth Leadership Program has truly been a valuable experience. I believe the size of the participants in this program has enabled us to get closer to one another on a deeper level as we are all able to come together. In addition, the fact that we can all come together despite varying fields of study under a common goal on behalf of Tibet makes us stronger than ever. It is extremely important that the younger generation understand that it is our duty as Tibetan Americans to continue to be louder than ever despite all the actions the Chinese regime puts forth to shut us down. It is in our position to utilize what we learn and place matters into our own hands to see real change. Something I will carry on from this program is the everlasting knowledge and friendships I have made with everyone here.

Whether or not you have any interest in politics or International affairs or relations, deep down we are all involved in this as this issue is no longer a foreign issue but a domestic one. Now, it is more important than ever to make our voices heard because the Tibetan issue lies within all of us and so we must educate ourselves to make an impact in politics which plays a huge role in the world and global affairs. Everyone should apply to this program because we can never have too many leaders in our community to lead Tibet to its freedom.

I have gained an insight into the true value of how important education is in being able to advocate for ourselves as well as educating others, Thank you ICT!

By Yeshi Lhakyi, a member of the 2019 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program.

Tibetan Youth Leadership Program 2018: week of insights

Tenzin Tsedon

Tibetan Youth Leadership Program

Participants of the 2018 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program in front of the State Department in Washington, DC.

We would often sit facing one another in a fashion identical to conference rooms. Throughout the week of the program, we have sat in the same manner in varying locations under differing circumstances. There was a sense of intimacy in that seating arrangement, the comfort felt was an embodiment of a rooted connection that formed fast and firm amongst us. Although, we all carried starkly distinct assortment of life experiences, the ceaseless tug of a unique cultural identity on our hearts served as the undeniable, unifying factor for us. In other words, the participants of the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program of 2018 were diaspora-induced diverse, yet the common cause of the diaspora linked us all strongly. I had never felt a connection such as this, this program not only strengthened my sense of self which in the past I often observed in a gray area, but it also awarded me with valuable peers, a set of role models in whom we can observe a segment of ourselves and knowledge, of official processes, insight on new perspectives as well as a glimpse of how we fit as activists in a chaotic international backdrop.

I personally came into this experience, uncertain, with minimal knowledge of the American government and the Tibet movement. But, I left, with a heavy heart and a mind with an equally significant weight of a newfound will. Our week consisted of dialogue with influential figures, observation of those very leaders in their respective fields, and touring of facilities to obtain a general understanding of the proceedings that shape policy and garner action for change. We also had a fruitful networking session where there were no shortages of sources for inspiration. The portions of the week that I enjoyed the most were lobby day on the Hill and the multilateral diplomacy simulation at the State Department. The latter was incredibly exhilarating; the art of considering a myriad number of factors and differing circumstances, of balancing scientific information with human morals before reaching a diplomatic solution was highly educational to partake in.

On the very first day, we learned of the importance of personal activism to go along with the popularly sought collective activism. At that time, this was merely an idea we became aware of, but lobby day materialized this idea and fortified its strength in our minds. Advocating and being a word away from earning support with potential for large-scale change showed us how being a small functional unit within a grand democratic system is powerful with true possibility of effectiveness. Lobby day also fortified the duality of some of our identities by fostering active participation. To explain in simpler terms, I learned that Tibetan-Americans can support the Tibet issue not solely by clinging to an ethnic identity, but also by working to interject the issue onto the United States political platform as the country’s citizens.

Hearing from exemplary people about their work, the organizations they represent whether it is a government or an NGO, their motivations for why they do what they do, their origins and the ‘flip’ that occured that woke them up from comfortable passivity to acute awareness was as moving as it was thought-provoking. I would again and again be left in awe when they spoke because they were often one individual making waves with ripples that crossed borders and oceans. The dialogue with and the observation of these leaders motivated us to come out of our own boxes of passivity, and most importantly, I think it dispelled the excuse that I personally have been guilty of holding onto, the excuse of the irrelevance of a single person in a chaotic and crowded political world. This reasoning no longer applied and made sense because there they were, relevant and strong individuals with fixed and visible roles in that very same chaotic backdrop.

This one week with ICT in the TYLP program gave the participants insights and skills built on new perspectives that we can navigate and utilize within as well as outside of the political discourse. I came with my understandings in singles and left with them in layers with the true feeling of having learned and acquired a worldly sense. This was an amazing opportunity that I believe every Tibetan youth should look to participate in and it would not have been possible without the figures who from the very first day guided us with their encouraging words and smiles that resonated with home away from home. These figures remained with us every step of this experience and facilitated our learning and effective participation by ensuring safety, comfort and instructive preparations. Bhuchung Tsering la, Tencho Gyatso la, Mr. Matteo Mecacci, and ICT, we thank you all for everything that you all do and for having continued doing so for a long time so we in our present didn’t miss it.

* Tenzin Tsedon is studying at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where she plans to double major in Microbiology and Spanish.

My experience at the 2018 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program

By: Karma Choedak

Participants of the 2018 Tibetan Youth Leadership Program in front of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC.

If you are familiar with the Tibetan freedom movement, you probably also know the importance of continued support from the international community to check China’s oppressive rule in Tibet. Be it China’s worry about its image on the global stage or practical trade interest, various forms of support from the international community have been the main source of force for keeping Tibetan issue alive. Needless to say, the US congressional support played an instrumental role to show China that they cannot do whatever they want in Tibet.

Tibetan Youth Leadership Program is a one-week long intensive program in which young Tibetan Americans learn about innovative ways to push Tibetan Freedom movement forward by appealing to their representatives in the Congress. This approach is innovative in the sense that Tibetans have traditionally portraited themselves as the victim of China’s illegal occupation of Tibet. Many people in the government of different countries are reluctant to work on Tibetan issues because they have more urgent and personal issues to deal first. Hence, for them, Tibetan issue might be a right thing to do but not on their list of priority. However, Tibetan Americans advocating Tibetan issues to their representatives in the Congress has a completely different meaning. Tibetan Americans are like any other Americans, their interest is part of the bigger American interest. Therefore, Tibetan issues are the inseparable part of American interest.

In addition to the opportunity to see many famous and historical buildings in the capital city, the leadership program also gave us hand on experiences to interact with many congressional representatives and their staffs. What is a better way to learn things than actually doing it! We also had the opportunity to thank long-time supporters of Tibetan freedom movement and express our gratitude for their unwavering support. Many of us really enjoyed the personal interaction with our representatives and sharing our concerns on Tibet with them.

Personally, one of the most powerful experience I had in this leadership program was how quickly all the participants became close to each other. Even though we came from different parts of the country and were born in different places, we could connect to each other easily because we shared the same root. One thing was evident to all of us, no matter wherever we live and whatever we do, Tibetans will always remain Tibetans. The more oppressive Chinese regime get in Tibet, more united the Tibetan people will be.

Last but not least, I want to sincerely thank all ICT staffs for organing this program. Your work has a tremendous positive impact on Tibetan freedom struggle and seeing you all working so tirelessly for Tibetan cause, I now have gained new hope that Tibet will be a free country soon.

* Karma Choedak is studying Business Administration at the University of Oklahoma.