Tibetan monks at the Gaden Shartse Monastery in Mundgod, India
High-spirited young Tibetan monks at the Gaden Shartse Monastery in Mundgod, India, hurry to a UCI presentation on campus life. Leslie Millerd Rogers/Student Affairs

Tibetan monks and Southern California college students  came together in September when a UC Irvine contingent toured monastic schools and colleges in India – and had an audience with Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama.

During the 18-day trip through New Delhi, Agra, Mundgod and Dharamsala, the 15 students, faculty, administrators and guests delved into Tibetan culture and Buddhist monastic education, visiting the Taj Mahal, Sarah College, the Norbulingka Institute and the Gaden Shartse Monastery.

They also assisted in UCI’s international recruitment. At the Tibetan Children’s Village, a boarding school for young refugees, recent biological sciences grad Vienna Nguyen and fellow Anteaters spoke about campus life.

“We told them that UCI offers a lot of opportunities for students to find themselves through clubs, sports and research,” she says. “Tibetan students are very committed to their education despite having limited resources.”

The trip reflects UCI’s commitment to developing leaders and scholars capable of problem solving in an increasingly interdependent world, says Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor emeritus for student affairs.

He compares the UC-India Initiative – which sponsored the journey – to the School of Social Sciences’ Olive Tree Initiative in the Middle East, African Collaborative Conversations Initiative and Global Brigades health outreach project in Central America.

“Technological innovations are knitting our world closer and closer together, and students today are more engaged with the rest of the world than previous generations,” Gomez says. “Global perspectives and globally conscious leaders are essential to solving the problems of the 21st century, including climate change, health disparities and access to clean water.”

With an itinerary full of official meetings, dinners and presentations, Gomez notes, it was the casual gatherings that facilitated bonding.

“Part of the idea of a global village is connecting with others and forming relationships across cultures,” he says. “The students exchanged e-mail addresses and had great, informal chats about campus life – everything from UCI’s Nobel laureates to its proximity to the ocean.”

Kevin Truong, a UCI senior majoring in social ecology, says the trip made him realize how much he and his American peers have in common with their Tibetan counterparts: “The students we met love basketball, surfing the Net and playing computer games in their free time.”

The highlight of the trip was an audience with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, home of the exiled Tibetan government. Refugees from the high plateau region fled to India in the late 1950s when China assumed sovereignty over Tibet. The exile community is committed to preserving Tibetan traditions and culture.

Bethel Mesgana, a recipient of UCI’s 2010-11 XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship, described to His Holiness the scholarship-funded project she and fellow Dalai Lama Scholar Doug Cheung have undertaken.

They’re creating an undergraduate course and public forum promoting holistic healthcare. The class will feature lessons in psychiatry, geriatrics and family medicine, as well as guest appearances by people with chronic diseases and terminal illnesses. A panel of experts, patients and caregivers will participate in a public forum on compassionate healing next spring.

When asked for advice or input, His Holiness replied: “None! This is a wonderful project that I admire.” Mesgana, a senior majoring in sociology and biological sciences, says the Tibetan spiritual leader noted: “Schools and universities do a good job of developing knowledge and training the brain but do not spend time developing the heart.”

A group of private citizens established the annual UCI scholarship after hearing the Dalai Lama speak on campus in April 2004. It recognizes undergrads committed to ethical leadership, peace and positive global relations.

Nguyen, whose trip to India marked her first time outside the U.S., says immersion in a foreign culture is something every UCI student should experience.

“The environment in India is so different from Irvine, and it was fascinating to see things like cows walking along the roads,” she says. “And the food was amazing – I’ve never tasted so many different flavors!”