Thomas Langer, a senior at the University of Iowa studying International Studies and Human Rights (CLAS), traveled to India last summer to conduct research for his Honors Thesis. While there, he met an unexpected visitor whose personal story of struggle and success moved Thomas beyond words and affirmed his academic ambitions. Here is Thomas’ story.
This summer, I spent nearly three months in the mostly northern parts of India where I conducted research and field work for my Honors Thesis topic of investigating the role and impact of new social media upon the Tibetan diaspora living in exile. While in India, I also completed an intensive eight-week Hindi language program under the auspices of a separate University of Iowa scholarship. My research project was made possible through the generosity of the Stanley Undergraduate Award for International Research, which is offered through the kind support of the Stanley – UI Foundation Support Organization.
Seeking to understand how Tibetans living in India are consuming various forms of social media to form and express their opinions of their government in exile, I traveled to the various Buddhist gompas (temples), coffee houses, libraries, and other locations where Tibetans gather to share news about their homeland. The highlights of my field work were by far the days I spent in Dharamsala and Bodh Gaya. I was able to make numerous contacts and more importantly, I was blessed with being able to forge through the researcher / interviewee dynamic and was able to hear a few Tibetans’ life stories and testimonies about crossing over to India from Tibet in order to escape the various kinds of persecution both they and their families encountered in Tibet.
At the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India
Some of the best moments in my field work came when I was able to step back from being a researcher and simply be another human being with empathy and allow the person across from me to tell their story. One story in particular stuck with me throughout my time in Dharamsala. On my second day in Dharamsala, while having breakfast in a small café in the heart of the small town, a Tibetan man entered the café through the front door, greeted the staff, and soon approached my table with the warmest and most kind smile I have probably ever seen. He introduced himself as Yonten, the owner, and he was interested not so much as to my enjoyment of the breakfast before me, but more so where I was from and what my story was. You could say that we may have had a kind of karmic connection.
After explaining my background and research project to Yonten, his face lit up and his eyes shone with a clarity and brightness I will never forget. We had many conversations that week and I came to learn that Yonten traveled to Dharamsala nearly twelve years prior with his mother from Lhasa, Tibet. He spoke of the journey as if it was yesterday, and I was immediately captivated by his storytelling prowess and hung on his every word.
Thomas' friend Yonten stands at the entrance
of his small café in Dharamsala, India
Yonten described a four week journey that took him over the mountainous peaks of the Himalayas with nothing more than what could be carried and how he ate snow and grass for nourishment, hid from Chinese soldiers, and lived in fear for his life and worried about the well-being of his loved ones back home each and every day of his trek. He spoke of how he arrived in Dharamsala without a rupee to his name and how he borrowed a few rupees upon his arrival to buy a cigarette. He told me of the incredible generosity of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and how the Main Temple provided food, shelter, and basic necessities after his arrival. Twelve years since coming to India, Yonten now speaks three languages (Tibetan, Hindi, and a little English), is married with a family, and own two restaurants here. His story moved me beyond words and continually reminds me of why I am studying what I am studying.
In addition to the Stanley Award for International Research, Thomas received a Carver Scholarship. These awards are given annually to UI juniors who have overcome extraordinary circumstances. See Iowa Now  for a feature on Thomas and his Carver Scholarship.
Thomas will be attending the London School of Economics this October for a Master's program in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. He hopes to one day work for an organization that is committed to providing opportunities for children of extreme poverty and helping give voice to the voiceless.