Tenzin P. Bhagen, '04, arrived at Grand Valley State University in 2000 following a path that none before him had taken, a fitting precursor for the eventual founder and primary guide of Tashi Delek Travel Company based in Washington D.C.
Tenzin was the first student to receive GVSU's Tibetan Refugee Scholarship, which was originated by President Emeritus Arend Lubbers in 1999. He was selected from a wide slate of deserving candidates due to his remarkable background and his unwavering dedication to the quest for education.
Bhagen was born in eastern Tibet. He had family members who were chieftains in the area prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, many of whom were eventually executed or imprisoned for political dissent. Bhagen himself spent his youth as a child laborer. He never dreamed that one day he would learn to read and write, let alone graduate from college. "There was no opportunity for any type of education where I grew up and no way to gain knowledge of the outside world."
In 1987, he fled Tibet, lumbering over the snow-covered Himalayas to northern India where he entered his very first classroom at the age of 21 and earned his high school diploma. He moved to San Francisco in 1996, began working for a non-profit organization founded by the Beastie Boys to support non-violent social change, and enrolled in community college. It was while in California that he received an email from Grand Valley informing him of the newly established scholarship. "
I was reborn at Grand Valley. To me, a human being without an education is not fully developed, like a bird without wings." Grateful for his unique opportunity, Tenzin made sure to explore the many doors opened to him through GVSU. He studied hard, worked for the student newspaper, the Lanthorn, and spent a year studying abroad in London, further expanding his international experience in education. In 2001, he became a U.S. citizen.
Earning a B.A. in Journalism from GVSU in 2004, Tenzin became the first person from the area where he was raised to earn a modern college degree. He moved to Washington D.C. and began his career pursuits. With his first-hand knowledge of Tibetan culture and people, he was offered a job leading student expeditions to his homeland.
"I returned home and saw that friends and many of the children remain illiterate. I realized that I had to use my experiences to help and saw the best way to do this was by avoiding political activity." With a loan he received from Jeff Koeze, a Grand Rapids businessman that he met through connections to GVSU professor Michael DeWilde, Tenzin started his own travel company. The journeys provide total cultural immersion and not just a visit to a tourist destination. "Because of my connections, I am able to arrange home stays and meetings with monks, nuns, and lay people as well as guide treks through Tibet's beautiful terrain." His unique tours and the amazing philosophy the company was founded on have earned him national exposure through articles in the New York Times and National Geographic.
On starting his company, Tenzin explains, "I hope to be a cultural bridge between the East and the West. I want to benefit the people of Tibet but also the people from my new country by exposing them to a very different culture and way of life. The experience in Tibet really changes people spiritually, physically, politically. I often feel that if everyone in the world could spend a week living with a family in a different culture, the world would be a better place." His ultimate goal, however, is to establish scholarships for Tibetan natives helping them gain access to higher education, as he himself was helped by Grand Valley and President Lubbers.
Tenzin is organizing a trip in the Summer of 2008 specifically for people at Grand Valley and in the Grand Rapids community. He will also begin offering rare winter trips during the Tibetan New Year this February. "The winter in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is actually warmer than in Grand Rapids. It's when the tourists disappear and the Tibetan pilgrims from all corners of the country flock to Lhasa, providing a [rare photographic] opportunity," explains Tenzin. If you are interested in participating in a trip, or would like more information on Tashi Delek Travel, visit www.tashidelektravel.com.
Added December 2007