As Suzanne Bessenger, a religious studies professor, was designing the syllabus for her Gendering Enlightenment class, she realized that all of the students were interested in fields that would require grant writing.
“Instead of asking them to each write a traditional research paper, I thought why not have the students work together to apply for a research grant as the final writing project?” she said.
The students (Avery Payne’21, Rabiea Ashraf ’21, Hannah O’Berry ’21, and Sean Johnston ’22) still had to complete in-depth research, but they worked together to use that research to articulate a compelling argument for a research project, learning how to create a budget and timeline in the process.
The students applied for an ASIANetwork-Freeman Student-Faculty Fellowship. The ASIANetwork is a foundation promoting the study and understanding of Asia in the liberal arts, and this highly competitive fellowship provides funding for projects that includes flights, room, board, and all research expenses.
The students and Bessenger will travel to Nepal for three weeks in June to interview nuns and study how opportunities for religious and secular education are changing for Buddhist nuns.
“Nearly 20 years into the second millennium, the United Nations continues to cite gender equality as a pressing issue of global concern,” Bessenger said. “In Buddhist worlds across Asia, this same two-decade period has brought growing recognition of historical inequities between male and female members of the Buddhist monastic order, and in response, historically unprecedented changes to religious and educational opportunities for Buddhist nuns.”
The trip will be a first for Rabiea Ashraf ’21. “In the future, I want to work on women’s education in my home country, Pakistan. This is the best opportunity for me to learn this topic.”
The group plans to study the changes that have occurred in two areas of Nepal, the Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery, a Vajrayana Buddhist institution in Kathmandu, and Peace Grove Institute, a Theravada-inspired nunnery near the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Lumbini.
“It is a fantastic opportunity for students and faculty to work together to see how the ideas and theories they have been studying in the classroom actually play out in the living communities in Asia.” Bessenger said.
The students will explore issues such as what educational and religious opportunities are available for nuns at those two institutions and how they differ from those offered in the past. They will also examine whether non-monastic Buddhists see their financial support of nuns’ activities as equally valuable as donations to monks’ endeavors.
“We have a chance to interview and get to know nuns that are experiencing phenomenal change and progression in their culture and religious practice,” said Hannah O’Berry ’21. “I hope to take from this experience a new and improved set of eyes that will help me to see things from a different perspective or lens.”
Bessenger said the time spent living near the nunneries and interacting with both the nuns and those who live around them will provide the students with life-altering experiences and skills that will carry over well after they graduate.
“By conducting interviews and learning to respectfully navigate the overlapping social networks of these two nunneries, these students will gain research experience and intercultural communication skills in distinctively Asian environments. I expect them to accomplish amazing things beyond the red brick wall– this experience is just laying the groundwork for their future careers in education, non-governmental organizations, politics, and non-profit social justice work,” she added.