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Nepal Semester Student's Catherine Von Holt's photograph of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

Faculty Introduction – “Diversity in the Himalayas”

Dear Nepal College Study Abroad Students,

Happy New Year 2019!

I am pleased to introduce myself on this auspicious day, as the faculty for your Nepal Regional Seminar this spring. I am excited for the class, which will begin after program orientation and last roughly until the middle of our program in mid-March. The class I am offering is titled “Diversity in the Himalayas”, indeed a truly vast subject. It will be our opportunity to provide context and insight into your experience in Nepal, and attempt an overview of an array of interwoven subjects, including geography, history, politics, religion, philosophy, public health, disaster recovery, gender, art, music, architecture, social issues, environmental activism, and more. We expect there will be numerous topics covered that will appeal to each of you, individually and as a group.

As for a personal introduction, I am from a small city in Central Louisiana, and enjoyed my youth in ways common to Southern kids: scouts, sports, band, church, playing in the woods. Feeling for a radically different setting, I traveled to Nepal in 2003 my junior year for a college study abroad program much like what are embarking on. It was a profoundly impacting experience that changed my life in many ways. Since then, I have spent over half of the time in South Asia, deepening my understanding of the Himalayas and the peoples that call it home, in a variety of contexts: collecting oral history in Solu-Khumbu (Mt Everest Region) from elder Sherpa and Tibetans; conducting research with the Newar community in the Kathmandu Valley; developing social work projects with Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, India, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; leading treks and cultural programming in Lower Mustang in the Annapurna  Conservation Area; exploring the historic sites of Central Tibet with students like yourselves; teaching college study abroad in Himachal and Uttarakhand states of North India; organizing seismic resistant building trainings in the Nepali hills after the devastating earthquakes of 2015; coordinating and participating in meditation retreats at monasteries and nunneries near Kathmandu; going on occasional personal pilgrimage to holy sites near and far; teaching Buddhist Studies at a local college in Kathmandu; more recently working with Dragons as an instructor in 2017 and 2018; and other spiritual, social, and mundane pursuits I look forward to sharing with you all. Most significantly, I am the husband of an incredible woman from Dolpo in north-western Nepal, and a father of an adorable energetic boy who turns one in about a week.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also radically changed my life. My father’s family hails from New Orleans, so I have continued to dedicate a portion of my energy each year to flood recovery work and endless house renovations! I have passion for the Himalayas, but my perspective remains deeply rooted in Louisiana, the place that has been home to my family for generations. I recognize that it may strike you as a little strange that an American man from the Deep South will be your teacher for a course titled, “Diversity in the Himalayas”, and in some ways it certainly is! However, only through recognizing our own limitations of conditioning, perspective and experience, we can see beyond them. Practically speaking, I will do my absolute best to emphasize a plethora of local voices in our course content, by organizing as many guest speakers, field trips, and tours as possible.

In this way, I am honored to have the opportunity to continue exploring, together with you. Though my role is that of your teacher, I am really another student participating, albeit a bit older, and I remain thrilled for the learning opportunities with which I continue to be blessed. I expect us all to be open to new insights and awareness, willing to put aside our prejudices and beliefs – or disbeliefs – to make space for new truths. Following your sense of adventure is the golden key on this type of experience. Teachers have the ability to facilitate learning conditions for and with our students, but we are not the causes of learning. The causes naturally rest in your hands, or are seeds within you: your open-minded attitude, diligence, curiosity, and perseverance.

I am sure that you are excited and may be apprehensive as you prepare for your journey, but don’t stress out! You are on the way to meet an exceptionally great team of experienced people that truly care about their work with you, and most anything you forget to pack you can get in Kathmandu! If you have any questions about the class, please post them here on the Yak Board and I will do my best to answer them promptly.

Best of luck! Looking forward to meeting you at the end of January.


Michael D Smith, MSW MPH