NEW ORLEANS — When Tulane University Professor Ronald Marks received official notice more than a year ago that the Dalai Lama had accepted his invitation to visit New Orleans, Marks said that he literally jumped for joy.
Marks, the dean of Tulane’s School of Social Work, has been taking graduate students to Dharamsala, India, for the past 12 years to work with Tibetan refugees in the mountaintop village where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government live and operate in exile.
As Tulane grew increasingly connected to the Tibetan refugee community, Marks decided it was time to issue an official invitation to the Dalai Lama. Many of the Dalai Lama’s biannual visits to the United States are connected to universities, he said.
Fortunately, one of the Tulane group’s guides was friends with the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary. In September 2011, Marks hand-delivered a letter to the secretary and had a conversation about what he envisioned for a visit.
Marks also wrote a letter to the Tulane University Senate to nominate the Dalai Lama for an honorary doctorate.
The Dalai Lama will arrive in New Orleans on May 16 for a weekend filled with speeches and special events, including the keynote address at Tulane’s Commencement on May 18.
The professor’s trips to India began after he connected with colleague Neil Guidry, a 1990 Tulane alum and professor of Tibetan studies in the School of Social Work.
In 1997, Guidry started the Louisiana Himalaya Association. According to the nonprofit group’s website, the organization was created to “form a cultural and social service bridge between the Tibetan Refugees in Northern India and the people elsewhere that have so much to learn from their wisdom.”
The Indian government gave the Dalai Lama a small “hill station’’ once used by the British government after he fled Tibet in 1959. Today, there are about 150,000 Tibetan refugees who made the journey to Dharamsala, Marks said.
When Tulane students first traveled there in 2002, Marks said the link to the association not only provided logistical support but also integrated the Tulane students into the community and other social service organizations.
The annual September trips typically include about 15 graduate students who spend four weeks in India. The Tulane students have made presentations about their experiences, which have resulted in other student groups visiting Dharamsala in coordination with the Louisiana Himalaya Association. Marks said. The town hosts a group of Centenary College students in May, a group of Tulane undergraduate students in June and Loyola University students in July.
The presentations also have generated help for the town. Marks said that an audience member gave $5,000, which was used to build the first well for 1,500 residents who had lived for decades in homes made of sticks and tarps. The well cost $3,200. With the remaining $1,800, Marks said they built a tent with a loom and offered weaving lessons to women living in the slum.
Another project was launched after a Tulane student met with a monk who suffered from bad headaches, Marks said. When the student observed him reading tiny print, holding the book close to his face, she suspected the headaches were related to his eyes.
They took him “down the mountain” to an optometrist, and for $10, he received an eye exam and was prescribed glasses. The headaches went away. With a $1,000 donation, a project was started to provide 100 Tibetans with eye exams and, if needed, glasses, Marks said.
The small, grass-roots projects can make extraordinary differences in individual lives, he said.
One of the aspects of the Marks’ trips includes a “mutual learning partner.” Students are paired up with Tibetans close in age and spend one-on-one time throughout the month.
Megan Coleman-Watkin, who went on the trip in 2011 and now works as a medical case manager for the NO/AIDS Task Force, said that she corresponded with her partner prior to the trip through email. Coleman-Watkin said they both were shy, but as they got to know each other in person, they laughed a lot.
“We found a lot of things ironic that we both could identify as ironic, and we were able to crack each other up,” she said.
The students also spend time travelling around the area, including a trip to the sacred lakeside village of Tsopema to visit with monks and nuns living in caves.
On three of the trips, students had the opportunity to attend three full days of the Dalai Lama’s public teachings.
While the trip is not focused on religion, it’s essential to learn about all parts of the culture and how Buddhist philosophies are implemented in daily life, Marks said.
Marks described the Tibetan Buddhist perspective as “my happiness depends on your happiness,” with central values of compassion, resilience, connection, nonviolence and putting others before self.
Coleman-Watkin, a native of New Mexico, said that the trip appealed to her as an opportunity of growth, “to be both a helper and vulnerable at the same time.”
Marks said that the impact of the trip varies for students, who are all months away from earning their master’s degree in social work. He has seen students change their plans toward working internationally with refugees, and even a few who have become Buddhists.
But most of all, Marks said the trips give students a greater context of community. For those working in hospice, Marks said they gained insight into different ideas around death.
Coleman-Watkin said that empathy was her biggest takeaway from the experience, which she said also taught her patience and the ability to adapt outside her comfort zone, as well as lessons in patience.
She also noted the importance of being exposed to abject poverty.
“It’s vastly valuable to see how a lot of the world is living,” she said.
“The students need to grow personally and professionally, and see the linkage between the two and integrate the two,” Marks said. The trip to India, and in particular working with the refugees, “gives students the opportunity to stretch and shift out of a western paradigm. It’s a transformational experience, to see the world through a different lens.”
Coleman-Watkin said she is now part of the volunteer effort surrounding the visit. In particular, she said she is working on community outreach — engaging people who are already interested in the visit, as well as making the teachings of the Dalai Lama more accessible to those who may not know much about him.
Over the next four weeks, Marks and Coleman-Watkin, along with many others, will be busy fundraising, engaging the community and organizing in anticipation of the historic visit.
“I do really believe this is a great gift for the city and for the people of New Orleans,” Marks said.