Educator and activist Dorje Gurung '94 received an Honorary Doctorate of Science at Grinnell College Commencement 2014.
About Dorje Gurung ’94
Gurung is a widely traveled, internationally educated Tibetan-Buddhist science teacher who last year was imprisoned in Qatar on charges of insulting Islam. A coalition of Grinnell alumni and other friends banded together to help free Gurung and ensure his safe return to Nepal, where he now serves as education program director at Community Members Interested.
Doctor of Science
It is a timeworn truth that education is the key to a better life. For Dorje Gurung, a great education changed his life. He has committed his career to helping others experience a similar transformation.
Growing up in Nepal, Gurung started his life with only the most basic educational options; he seemed destined for a life with limited opportunity. But a teacher saw promise in him and encouraged his family to seek out private schooling. Gurung eventually landed in a top boarding school in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu.
Eager to take his education further than his country would likely allow, he read voraciously from the modest library at his school. He came to Grinnell on a full-ride scholarship and earned a degree in chemistry.
After graduation, Gurung committed himself to international teaching. He taught science and chemistry courses to students in countries ranging from Malawi to Azerbaijan to Vietnam. He helped create real change in his students, one classroom at a time.
In May 2013, while teaching science in Qatar, he was accused by a young student of insulting Islam and was jailed for nearly two weeks. After a powerful international outcry, launched by former students, colleagues, and classmates — including many Grinnellians — he was released.
Such an experience could have easily convinced Gurung to give up his dreams to provide a better education to those who need it most. Instead, it has served as a catalyst for larger-scale work. Shortly after his release, he developed a fundraising campaign to serve children in rural Nepal. He raised more than $30,000.
Today, he is the education program director at COMMITTED, a nonprofit organization that helps provide free quality education to students in rural Nepal.
For his lifelong efforts to offer a better education to all, we are pleased to recognize Dorje Gurung ’94.
Transcript of Speech
This is an honor and an incredible privilege…again!
I say again because the path and the opportunity to attend Grinnell College leading to my first degree had been an incredible privilege to begin with!
Coming from the barren and desolate desert of Mustang district, in Nepal, my parents were even unable to afford amenities like a refrigerator, telephone, stereo, indoor plumbing, etc. Quality education for their children was but an unimaginable dream. The most they could hope for for their children was the ability to “ read and write” at poorly resourced and severely underfunded government schools. Luckily for me, a teacher at one of these schools, recognizing my potential, advised my dad to put me in a good school, in Katmandu. “If you let your son continue his education at government schools, nothing will come of his potential,” were apparently his words.
Heeding his advice, my father took me to the capital, where I was admitted to one of the top schools in the country, a Jesuit boarding school, where education was subsidized. That privilege fired my imagination.
When I reached 12 years of age, I dreamed of getting qualifications from an institution in the United States and thereby making a difference to my family and to others from low socio-economic backgrounds through education.
On May 24, 1994, at my own commencement, seated where you all are, when I had realized what had seemed an impossible dream, I wasn’t ready to return to Nepal. I wanted to go see, and learn about, the world instead. I embarked on an extraordinary journal of world travel for over 15 years as an international teacher. From Norway in the north to Australia in the South; from the United States in the West to Vietnam in the East and dozens of other countries in between; from mountain passes at over 17000 feet in Nepal to thirty-plus meter depths of seas of the Philippines; from yurts in Colorado to snow camps in Norway to cabins in the Dolomites in Italy; from wild lives in the small Chitwan National Park in Nepal to the awesome Ngorongoro Crater and the incomparable Serengeti Plain in Tanzania, I discovered and learned a great deal about our planet and, most importantly, about humanity.
In 2013, while in Qatar, I had finally decided to return home to Nepal to provide children from low socioeconomic background the kind of opportunities I’d had. As you know, I was instead incarcerated in a Qatari jail. My freedom was secured by a massive international campaign initiated, managed and run by friends from the Jesuit School in Nepal, friends from the UWC in Italy, friends from Grinnell College, other friends and colleagues from around the world, former students (also from all over the world) and thousands of others.
Since returning home after that dramatic end to my almost 25 years of wandering the globe, I have finally been implementing education-related projects at government schools to help children with backgrounds similar to mine.
That circuitous story of my life was to tell you two things. The first thing: follow your dreams, and you will be rewarded with incredible privileges. The second thing—and probably the more important of the two: Be mindful of the people you encounter along the way—everyone you encounter, from the lowest of the low to those in the highest of positions. The people you meet on your life’s journey, pursuit of your dreams, will make the difference in your life.
Good luck, Class of 2014, as you venture forth, pursuing your dreams, endeavoring to make a difference in your lives and, quite possibly, the lives of others.