Last October, a boy in a remote village in rural Tibet, who didn’t know how to write his name six years earlier, graduated from school and went on to study computer science.
A world away, in Woodinville, is the woman who’s helping fund experiences like that. In 2007, Wendy Wong founded Education at Elevation, a nonprofit that raises money for education, food and clothes for students in a rural village in Tibet.
She first learned about Tibetan culture and the challenges that Tibetan nomads face when she hosted Sonam Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and Wong’s mother’s teacher, so he could learn English in the U.S. Rinpoche wanted to start a school, and Wong said she and her friends made a “spontaneous” decision to raise money to do that.
“We calculated the cost. It was about a dollar a day that you cover all their food, their education and clothing and accommodation,” Wong said. “It’s like, ‘We should be able to do that.’”
Education at Elevation is trying to show the importance of education and make it work with the community’s lifestyle.
As nomadic yak herders, the Tibetans are “usually spread over the mountains, so to make them come to school, we really need to provide a space for them to stay and live,” Wong said. The school provides housing, food and clothes for the students.
Students learn three subjects: Tibetan (their own language), Mandarin (the national language of China), and math. Students can start attending school at ages 6 through 17, and graduate in five years.
“The kids, they’ve never held a pencil before, they don’t know how to write anything,” Wong explained. “They don’t know how to write their name. They have to start from the same ground zero no matter what your age.”
The first group of graduates finished school last October. Now, those students are studying in monasteries (the only other free education available), working in a factory owned by one of Rinpoche’s students or back home with their families.
“There’s only one kid, who’s very, very bright, who went and studied computers in one of the biggest towns in western China,” Wong added. “From six years ago, not knowing how to hold a pencil, all the way to studying computers. It’s amazing.”
However, a year after the school opened, Wong noticed a problem. In rural Tibet, girls traditionally do lots of chores, so many families don’t see the value of educating their daughters.
“When we started the school, we had boys only. That was in 2007. A year later, we found there’s no girls, and we were so shocked. How come there’s no girls?” she said.“I told Rinpoche, I said, ‘We can’t ignore the girls. We will do anything to get the girls to school’.”
They raised money and hired female teachers, and the first group of girls started attending in 2010. But many dropped out, and it was hard to find other girls to attend.
So they changed their approach, offering sewing classes for girls and women of all ages. They give the women materials to sew bags, which they sell in the U.S. and return the profits to the women. Wong hopes that bringing women to the school for the sewing classes will encourage them to learn reading, writing and math someday.
Education at Elevation’s next project is building a water system that will work at the high elevation of 14,000 feet. Now, the students have to carry water from the mountain — a time-consuming process — and the water pipes they use freeze during the winter. Wong, a chemical engineer who specializes in water systems, helped design a new system that will work with the weather and soil. It will enable the students and teachers to wash their hands more often and have better sanitation.
On May 17, Education at Elevation will host a dinner and auction to raise money for the water system. The event, at Om Culture in Seattle, will include a Tibetan-Nepalese feast, live music by Tony Smiley and an auction featuring blown glass artwork, jewelry and more. Tickets can be purchased for $45 through Brown Paper Tickets.