Alumna Yang Chen: Saving the Children of Tibet

17 October 2012

Yang Chen
"The culture and the people of Tibet fascinate me", says Yang Chen

In the face of Tibet's politically sensitive climate, one Master of Human Rights and Democratisation (MHRD) alumna is now working to ensure future generations of Tibetan children have a more equitable future.

Yang Chen was inspired to complete a one-year Masters of Human Rights and Democratisation (Asia Pacific Regional Program) degree at the University of Sydney after learning about the unique program in her home country, China.

"During my study abroad, I realised that Tibet is a controversial and interesting place in many ways, yet the real situation there is hardly known by the outside world," she says. "Every time I read articles, which are mainly criticising the suppression of Tibetans by the Chinese government, I always wondered what it is like to live in Tibet, and whether the opinions are objective."

Undettered by the volatile political situation and international media spotlight on human rights abuses in the region, Chen was resolved to turn her long-time fascination with Tibet into a meaningful and rewarding career.

"Since I was very little, I had heard stories of Tibet and the beautiful scenery and sincere Buddhists," Chen explains. After swapping her marketing and management career with foreign cooperatives for the Master of Human Rights and Democratisation degree, Chen now works as an Education Officer with Save the Children Tibet, working to shine a light on the hidden plight of children living in this "sacred and mysterious" land.

Among the day-to-day activities of this inspiring graduate role are research and fieldwork on basic education, child protection initiatives, as well as training projects at rural Tibetan schools to improve teacher quality, where Chen has become a fast favourite with her young charges.

"Through weekly visits and interactions, the children and I got familiarised with each other. They call me 'sister' and we have become sort of playmates," she reflects. "We talk about both daily life and academic studies. Probably because of my non-Tibetan Chinese look and background, the children are interested in learning everything about me as well."

The transition from corporate manager to development worker was a straightforward one for Chen, who had previously undertaken charity work throughout her undergraduate studies. Chen's interests in international law, women's advocacy, and children's rights also figured as common hallmarks of her formal education.

"I realised that it feels amazing to help others," she says. "Rather than representing clients, I would prefer to help and support people who are in need directly, and work in the field with the communities."

The MHRD is Asia Pacific's premier regional degree in human rights and democratisation, offering students the chance to study human rights and democracy building at both the University of Sydney and one of four partner universities, including: Mahidol University (Thailand), Gadjah Mada University (Indonesia), Kathmandu School of Law (Nepal) and the University of Colombo (Sri Lanka). The degree is co-funded by the European Union.

Chen was drawn to the MHRD's distinctive design, which allowed her to complete a 4-month internship in Sri Lanka with the Centre for Women's Research (CENWOR), a local NGO for women's empowerment and community support projects. Chen believes this placement opened up "great opportunities to use my knowledge in practical advocacy and research."

"The days spent in both Australia and Sri Lanka allowed me to have first-hand experience in two different cultures and human rights situations," Chen says. "Most importantly, the MHRD program provided me with solid knowledge and practical skills, which have been greatly helpful to my daily work now.

"Thanks to this program and the University of Sydney, I am able to turn my passion towards charity and advocacy into a professional life that I love to devote myself to."

Having worked in Tibet for three months, Chen is beginning to see her work facilitating action research and developing advanced teacher-training models come to fruition. Yet she is well aware of the entrenched difficulties faced in improving Tibetan education standards.

"One of the problems in the school education of Tibetan children, is not their native language, but rather, their Chinese level," she claims. "This is exactly contrary to what I thought before coming to Tibet. However, there is still a significant gap between the mainland and Tibet schools, in terms of teaching qualities, facilities, and opportunities for further study.

"But the culture and people of Tibet fascinate me and encourage me to know more about this amazing land."

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