TLEF snapshot: UBC Himalaya Program integrates language learning and community engaged learning

By Heather McCabe posted on January 8th, 2018

Image: Summer 2017 Nepali language students visit Thrangu Monastery in Richmond to learn about Himalayan Buddhism. Students met with Nepali-speaking monks to practice their conversational skills. Photo by Tessa Owens.

Sara Shneiderman is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, the Institute of Asian Research, and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at UBC. She shared with us how her Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) project which received funding last year will help develop the UBC Himalaya Program, with the long-term objective of making UBC a premier centre for Himalayan Studies in Canada. The program combines language training in Nepali and Tibetan, faculty expertise in a range of disciplines, and community engaged learning. In 2018 the Himalaya Program will offer intensive two week, three credit courses in Nepali and Tibetan Language and Community-Engaged Learning from April 30-May 11 (

How did the idea for this project emerge?

Sara Shneiderman: This is a project that focuses on developing the UBC Himalaya Program. I’m one of the coordinators for that. We’re basically a network of scholars, students and community members who are all interested in the Himalayan region. Now, that includes Nepal, Bhutan, parts of India, parts of China, parts of Pakistan, and the Tibetan cultural regions that are a really important part of that whole area.

Sara Shneiderman, associate professor in Anthropology, the Institute of Asian Research, and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs—and a member of the UBC Himalaya Program Steering Committee.

We have five faculty members on the UBC Himalaya Program Steering Committee, who all have strong connections to the Himalayan region, but we’re all in different departments. I’m in Anthropology as well as the new School of Public Policy and Global Affairs (SPPGA), through my joint appointment at the Institute of Asian Research (IAR), which is one of the founding units of the SPPGA. I have a colleague in Art History, Katherine Hacker; a colleague with a joint appointment in Asian Studies and SPPGA/IAR, Tsering Shakya; another colleague in Anthropology and the First Nations and Endangered Languages Program, Mark Turin; and a colleague in Economics, Ratna Shrestha.

We got together to build this network to focus on the Himalayan region, where we have shared interests. That started two years ago. We wanted to find ways to offer the study of the languages of this region, which otherwise aren’t available to study at UBC. Not only at UBC, but there is nowhere in Canada where you can you study the Nepali language for credit, and very limited resources for studying colloquial Tibetan. We were looking at ways to make that happen, but we needed an alternative model to the standard three credit language course because these are less commonly taught languages, so you wouldn’t have the large enrolments that you usually need. But also, there are really active community organizations from the Nepali and Tibetan communities here in Vancouver: the Nepal Cultural Society of BC and the Tibetan Cultural Society of BC respectively. We all got to know each other through a series of events, and decided that we would try a different model for Nepali and Tibetan language learning, which is based on community engagement.

It’s blending traditional language learning in the classroom with an immersive language learning environment, which is standard on study abroad programs. But people don’t usually think of doing it at home. Those are the ideas that we were working with: first, to develop a network for those with interests across the disciplines in the Himalayan region; second, to develop a new set of connections between UBC and community organizations that haven’t previously had strong connections with the university; and third, to offer a new student experience that blends local community engagement with global and international experience. That’s what we’ve been wanting to do.

How will this project help enrich student learning and how will it impact teaching?

SS: On the student learning side, there are several different elements. As I mentioned already, one is being able to provide access to study languages, for which there is student interest but no other formal academic pathway. A lot of the student interest isn’t necessarily where you’d expect it. Several of the students who have enrolled in Nepali and Tibetan are doing applied work in the Himalayan region, for instance, students from the medical school who are involved with the Global Health Initiative, which has two programs that run in Nepal. We also have students from Architecture and Engineering who’ve been involved in post-earthquake reconstruction in that area, in addition to students from Asian Studies and Philosophy interested in Tibetan Buddhism. In all cases, we’re creating a new model to offer language learning opportunities to students whose fields might otherwise not channel them in that direction. And we feel like that’s a really important way of strengthening engagement in an international context, at the same time as it helps to strengthen those language opportunities for everybody.

The second thing is about rethinking cultural experiences, experiential education and community engaged learning. Like I said before, we see a need to create a local/global hybrid program because a lot of the models that we have at UBC emphasize the idea of either community engagement, which is usually conceptualized as local, or ideas of internationalization and global citizenship. Both of those things are seen as university objectives, but they’re not usually put together. So that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do: to help students make the connection between what learning about a far away place means for people who are right here, who might have started their lives out in those parts of the world or have heritage connections. We want to think about international experience and local community dynamics as a two-sided coin, which helps us understand both local and global inequalities and social dynamics.

And then the third thing is to create this blended model for language learning that integrates traditional classroom learning with community engaged experiential learning.

Did you want to touch on how the project will impact teaching?

SS: Right now we are focused on developing new curricular models for the intensive two-week Nepali and Tibetan Intensive Language and Community Engaged Learning courses in the summer. The teachers for those courses, Binod Shrestha and Sonam Chusang, are adjunct professors who come from the Nepali and Tibetan communities here. This draws new populations of teachers into the university. They’re both instructors with great language teaching credentials. So it’s sort of restructuring the expectations for how we think about instruction here, in relation to existing community-based areas of expertise that may not be represented at UBC already. This core summer language course is also creating the foundation for those of us who are full faculty members here to build a broader program around the Himalayan region, allowing us to expand our own teaching portfolios and integrate elements of language learning into our regular term-time content courses within our own departments.

We’ve been encouraged to think of Himalayan Studies as an Area of Focus at UBC, which is one of the ways that the Faculty of Arts highlights interdisciplinary specializations of study. Here you can list courses in different departments as cohering around a shared area of study. The summer Intensive Language and Community Engaged Learning Program will be the foundational course for the Himalayan Studies Area of Focus. We already have several other 300 and 400 level courses in Anthropology, Art History, Asian Studies, and Public Policy and Global Affairs that focus on different aspects of Himalayan languages, cultures, and histories which will be part of this pathway.

What we’re working on now is calibrating and integrating all of this into a programmatic structure that makes sense for students to do as a whole. That’s how the TLEF work will contribute to our rethinking of our teaching. We’re also working towards developing one new course as part of that. This will be a gateway course which I will teach—based in Anthropology but drawing on diverse interdisciplinary perspectives— that focuses on these ideas of local and global learning regarding the Himalayan region. It will have a community-engaged component, too, bringing in visitors from the Nepali and Tibetan communities to class, and taking students on field trips to community sites. So we’re bringing in the pedagogical learning we have experienced through the summer intensive courses into our term time, three credit courses, as well, too. We’ve piloted that model through the summer language courses, and now we’re going to be applying it in other contexts.

So the language component will be part of that course?

SS: Yes, that’s the idea. We’re working with different ways of doing that because if you have a three credit course taught in a normal term time structure, twice a week, one and a half hours, you can’t do full-on language training at the same time as you teach content. So what we’re looking at doing is pairing the term time course with the summer language intensive. The idea is that students would go through a progression where they would do both. Ideally, if they did the summer course first, then by the time they came into the fall course they would already have language fundamentals. The academic term courses would be taught by one of the full faculty instructors, but in collaboration with one of the community-based language instructors. We would be developing modules around thematic vocabulary and cultural content that would include language training as well as reading scholarly material in English about those themes.

This is the new pedagogical model that we’re working on. Rather than “ you take language” and then “you go to your lecture on Tibetan and Himalayan cultures” as separate efforts, rather that they’re integrated in a new way.

What are your main goals with this project?

SS: First, to make the summer program sustainable. This summer will be the third year we are running this program, but it’s supported by short-term grant funding. So we’re exploring different ways for grounding it in the regular university curriculum, and/or getting sustained external funding.

The issue is because it’s a small enrolment course that requires intensive labour and logistics for the community engagement part, it’s challenging to run it within the standard framework. So we’re looking at different ways to ensure sustainability. We’ve put a lot of time into consultations, both with the community organizations, but also with various organizations on campus, such as the Centre for Community Engaged Learning, which is also supporting this project, the Faculty of Arts, and departments and programs like Asian Studies and Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies (ACAM), about ways to partner.

The second big goal is to integrate this blended model for language study and community engagement into our regular academic term courses, as we already discussed. The third objective is to strengthen the overall network that we have through the UBC Himalaya Program. Our long-term objective is to make UBC the site of what would be the only centre for Himalayan Studies in Canada. There are a couple of places where you can study that part of the world in the U.S., but there’s nowhere in Canada that has an integrated set of offerings with language training for both Nepali and Tibetan, faculty expertise in a range of disciplines, and strong partnerships with diaspora community organizations in Canada, and organizations in the Himalayan region. In the long term we are also working on developing international service learning opportunities and/or study abroad offerings in the Himalayan region as part of the Himalayan Studies progression that students could experience.