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Arts educator, children’s author and illustrator, Trish Donald, recently returned from a memorable artist-in-residency education program in Paro, Bhutan. Her month-long adventure was both a professional development opportunity and a chance to immerse herself in the unique culture and educational landscape of Bhutan.

Trish worked closely with local educators and students to develop creative and interactive teaching resources aimed at supporting education. In this interview, Trish shares her motivation for the trip, experiences, and future plans.

How did the idea for the trip come about?

The idea for this trip came about through a combination of personal ambition and professional inspiration. Dr Margaret Brooks, an educator at UNE who has a longstanding working relationship with Bhutan, had created an artist-in-residency program that was in its pilot phase to integrate visual arts learning into the education syllabus at the College of Education in Paro, Royal University of Bhutan. I’ve known Margaret for years and have created interactive media resources for her in the past. So, when she told me about the residency program pilot I knew I had to apply. In the end it was made possible with the support of my managers and through UNE’s PPDR process. Visiting Bhutan had also long been a dream of mine because of its distinctive culture, beautiful landscape and Buddhism.

 What are some of the standout experiences of the trip?

What stood out most were the interactions with the students and the local people. The students were very receptive to my methods. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn were tangible even though they had very few resources. The students were fully engaged in the project-based learning activities I developed and excited about the new way of learning which was very different from their very traditional, teacher-led style of learning. One of the most remarkable aspects of Bhutanese culture was the behaviour of the shopkeepers. Unlike many Western places where competition can be fierce, the Bhutanese shopkeepers displayed a level of non-competitiveness and compassion that was very refreshing. They were more interested in helping each other than in competing for business. Whenever I told them I was working at Paro College they were so happy I was there to contribute to their students and education, they were so warm. This sense of community and mutual support is directly linked to Bhutan’s National Happiness index.

Did you have opportunity to travel?

I had a wonderful balance of work and cultural experiences although travelling in Bhutan is an experience in itself as visitors are required to have travel permits and a guide. Because I had a working visa I was able to travel with academic staff. I was only allowed to travel in a radius of about two hours around Paro, which has a lot of stunning landscapes and historical sites. One of the most memorable experiences was visiting Paro Taktsang, also known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This iconic site, perched high on a cliffside, is a marvel of architecture and spirituality. The hike up to the monastery was challenging but had breathtaking views. I respected and appreciated the strict regulations around travelling, as they are essential for protecting Bhutan’s unique culture.

Besides Paro, I had the opportunity to visit various Buddhist temples and monasteries. I’m a Buddhist, so I’m familiar with the iconography of Buddhism, the stupas, the prayer wheels, and the different deities. But I was still hugely impressed with the big Buddha sculptures, the artwork, the bejewelled alters, and the incense created an atmosphere of deep spirituality.

I also had the chance to engage with local communities during my travels. The warmth and hospitality of the Bhutanese people were evident everywhere I went. Whether it was sharing a meal with a local family or participating in a traditional dance, these interactions left a lasting impression on me. The Bhutanese people’s pride in their culture and their willingness to share it with visitors was obvious and inspiring.

Can you tell me more about the work you did in Bhutan?

During my stay, I worked on creating resources that would benefit not just Bhutanese students but also students in other communities with limited access to resources. I developed project-based learning activities and lesson plans that could be accessed online with mobile devices, which is crucial given the connectivity challenges in Bhutan. Sharing these resources with my colleagues was a key part of my project. By collaborating with other educators, I aimed to create a broader impact and enhance online learning for students in similar circumstances. The feedback from Bhutanese students and teachers was overwhelmingly positive. I will be sharing a comprehensive lesson plan based on my experiences in Bhutan along with the supporting resources I have created. These will be valuable for our students in other countries with limited access to resources. Additionally, I plan to create interactive books that include photos and videos of students involved in their learning from my trip. These books will serve as a visual and educational tool, bringing the unique culture and landscapes of Bhutan to a wider audience.

Is there anything else about the trip you want to share with Pulse?

I just wanted to add I am very grateful this experience was made possible because my Manager Kylie Day, Director Digital Education Sarah Thornycroft and Executive Principal, Education Futures, Sue Crew, could see the value this experience would provide for not only my professional development but for the benefit of teaching and learning at UNE.