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Teaching in Bhutan an eye-opening experience

View of hillside and mountains in Bhutan.

Sheila and Michael Luechauer pause for a photo on the way home from Michael's school in Bhutan.

Shangri-La is a fictional Himalayan utopia where people live simply and peacefully, unaware of the outside world and its complex modern problems. David Luechauer, visiting professor of management, taught in a country some called the last Shangri-La until it was introduced to modern technology about a decade ago.

The Royal Kingdom of Bhutan sits at the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains, sharing borders with China and India. Luechauer and his family (wife, Sheila, and sons Michael and Aaron) were in Bhutan for nine months as he taught at the Gaeddu College of Business Studies, part of the Royal University of Bhutan.

Luechauer appreciated the natural beauty of the mountains and Buddhist monasteries built with careful attention to detail, but all was not idyllic in Bhutan. Luechauer compared the infrastructure of the country to a small Indiana town circa 1910. “If you are there on the ground and see how people live … a lot of the houses don’t have running water.”

With marginal roads, few vehicles, and frequent mudslides, getting from place to place is usually accomplished by walking. Things we take for granted, like bathrooms with modern plumbing, could be a challenge to find in Bhutan. “Michael (Luechauer’s 6-year-old son) wouldn’t even go to the bathroom in his school, and that was after the accommodation that he could use the faculty bathroom.” Luechauer says he became a firm believer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “You just don’t have time to worry about a lot of the stuff you do when you are here (in the United States).”

Despite primitive living conditions in many areas of the country, in the last 10 years it has caught up with social changes and entertainment norms in the outside world via internet, smart phones and television. The cultural shock was profound.

“They just woke up one day and had ‘Sex and the City’ (on television). Talk about naïve, sheltered. My wife spent a lot of time explaining to women that it’s really not like ‘Sex and the City.’”

The Bhutanese practice a unique form of Buddhism with impermanence being a central theme. Luechauer thinks that may explain why many of the beautiful schools and buildings are in a state of disrepair. The concept of regular maintenance is a foreign idea. When trying to teach college students in Bhutan about deferred maintenance, “I might as well have been describing Mars,” he says.

Although that particular concept was difficult for students to grasp, there was no doubt about their commitment to learning. Just to get to campus, some students would spend most of a day hiking cross country. “In many parts of the world education is still highly prized and both students and faculty endure harsh conditions that you or I can barely conceive,” Luechauer says. “We complain about slow internet or delayed flights. They, in some cases, actually risk life itself for the opportunity to learn.”

Besides the unique experience of living and working among the Bhutanese, Luechauer and his family had a rare chance to have their picture taken with the entire senate of Bhutan, “the first ever democratically elected officials, on the top of a mountain. It is like getting a picture taken in Boston with all the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” he says.

Although there were difficulties and adjustments to make regarding living conditions, Luechauer remembers his time in Bhutan fondly. “Some unbelievably cool things can happen to faculty when they take on assignments in other countries, especially in less well-known or developed countries. Wild, amazing things happen that transcend teaching and learning.”

Bhutan is a small country (population around 700,000), but unbelievably this semester a Krannert MBA student born and raised in Bhutan ended up in one of Luechauer's classes. "There are so few Bhutanese in the United States, and since I am the only American back in the U.S. who has taught at the business school there, you'd have a better chance of winning the lottery than thinking we would make this connection at Purdue."