Dekila Chungyalpa learned a number of important lessons during her four years at The College of Wooster, but none greater than the ones she learned about herself.
A native of India and one of Wooster’s first environmental studies graduates, Chungyalpa credits the College for giving her “a four-year space to become comfortable with who I really was.”
“I had been hiding my passion about many things,” says Chungyalpa. “I was playing along like a cool, disconnected kid when I was in high school, but all that changed when I came to Wooster. It was here that I began to embrace my passions. I became deeply interested in a lot of issues, and I really wanted to make a difference.”
Concerns about the environment became Chungyalpa’s top priority. In addition to developing a self-designed major, she also became active in campus organizations and initiatives, including ECOS (Environmental Concerns of Students). She soon emerged as a campus leader and spokesperson, and played a major role in the establishment of Greenhouse, a program house that addresses environmental issues. “We started a student-run recycling program,” she says. “I’m very happy to see that [it] is still thriving today.”
After graduating from Wooster, Chungyalpa participated in a fellowship with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Nepal, then enrolled in American University’s graduate program in sustainable development. While at AU, she started working for Friends of the Earth, and later accepted a position with World Watch. But when her former boss at WWF came calling, she decided to return, and has been there ever since.
Currently, she is a director at WWF US, overseeing the Greater Mekong Program. Just last year, she established Sacred Earth, an initiative that works with religious leaders in an attempt to address environmental issues. “We’re enlisting their support for such issues as reforestation, climate-change awareness, and protection of wildlife,” says Chungyalpa. “The majority of people in the world follow a faith, and are often more likely to be influenced in their behavior by their religious mentor or leader than by scientists or government officials. By working at the community level, we believe we will have a much better chance to solve some of the environmental challenges we face.
“We have been very successful with the Buddhist community,” she adds. “Under the auspices of His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, we helped establish an association, called Khoryug, which has over 40 participating monasteries and nunneries in the Himalayas that carry out environmental projects.”
Others are taking notice, too. Chungyalpa was asked to speak at Windsor Castle at a celebration organized by the Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC) last November. “I literally left the jungle to go speak at the event,” she says. “It was only when I arrived at Windsor that I realized how distinguished the participants were, with Prince Philip hosting the event and participants who ranged from Ban Ki Moon to faith leaders from all over the world. It was a watershed moment for me because the celebration highlighted how much promise there is in a partnership between the environmental and faith communities.”
Currently, the Sacred Earth Program is focusing on three primary issues: trying to save the rapidly diminishing population of tigers worldwide; raising awareness about how communities can adapt to climate change; and protecting the biological integrity of Asia’s rivers. “We need progressive open-minded religious leaders to play the role of a steward in all of this,” she says, “and help build a resilient future for their own communities.”
Ironically, Chungyalpa never intended to enroll at Wooster. She wanted a “left-leaning intellectual school,” and her top choices were Brown and Smith, among others, but her high school counselor at the U.N. International School in New York City, insisted that she consider Wooster. “She kept telling me it was ‘a perfect match’ for me,” says Chungyalpa. “I finally decided to see what Wooster had to offer, and I remember an almost instant emotional attachment when I visited. I started to say, ‘I can see myself here.’”
Chungyalpa also liked Wooster’s size, which was similar to the small community in which she was raised, and her family liked the student-faculty ratio as well as the substantial number of international students. “My counselor was right,” she says. “Wooster was just the right school for me.”
When it came time to tackle I.S., Chungyalpa was well prepared. She conducted much of her research off campus, traveling to an Apache reservation in Mescalero, N.M., where the tribal council had recently agreed to accept nuclear waste.
“I.S. was a fantastic experience,” says Chungyalpa. “It taught me to think critically and analyze in a linear way, both logically and rationally,” she says. “It helped me to harness an argument by using the most effective language.
“It also led me to a gradual understanding that what I was doing was important and much bigger than me. Being off campus and coming face to face with community members in New Mexico who were resisting the nuclear dumping helped me to realize that my interests were not simply a childish pursuit. This was life and death. It was then that I changed as a person. I knew that I had to do things that would help solve problems and benefit local communities.”
“Dekila is an example of the extraordinary ways in which our students build upon their Wooster experiences and construct not only interesting careers but also meaningful lives,” says Henry Kreuzman, an associate professor of philosophy. “In my environmental ethics class, she passionately challenged the standard views and exhibited an ability to identify and expose hidden assumptions. It’s no surprise that she is leader in creative ways to resolve environmental problems.”
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