HIGHLIGHTS

  • He was a 19-year-old engineering student at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar, Kashmir, when he went into tutoring to finance his schooling and help woefully unprepared students pass the national college matriculation exams
  • In 1988, after earning his engineering degree, Wangchuk founded Students’ Education and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) and started coaching Ladakhi student, 95% of whom used to fail the government exams.
  • In 1994, with Wangchuk in the lead, “Operation New Hope” (ONH) was launched to expand and consolidate the partnership-driven educational reform program.  Taking a life of its own, to date ONH has trained 700 teachers, 1000 VEC leaders, and dramatically increased the success rate of students in matriculation exams from just 5% in 1996 to 75%  by 2015.
  • In electing Sonam Wangchuk to receive the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes “his uniquely systematic, collaborative and community-driven reform of learning systems in remote northern India, thus improving the life opportunities of Ladakhi youth, and his constructive engagement of all sectors in local society to harness science and culture creatively for economic progress, thus setting an example for minority peoples in the world.”

 

 CITATION

Ladakh in the northern India state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a high-altitude, cold desert region where some 300,000 people struggle in the midst of a harsh environment, wars arising from the rival claims of India, Pakistan, and China, and now even climate change.  Yet here the will to autonomy, creativity, and empowerment remains vibrant.

An inspiring example is Sonam Wangchuk.  Born in the small, remote village of Ulaytokpo in Ladakh, one of many children of a local leader, he had a difficult education because minorities were discriminated against, schools were lacking and poorly-equipped, teaching standards abysmal, textbook content locally irrelevant, and the medium of instruction alien in the mountains.  Left mostly to fend for himself, he took control of his life early on.

He was a 19-year-old engineering student at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar, Kashmir, when he went into tutoring to finance his schooling and help woefully unprepared students pass the national college matriculation exams.  Renting a hotel function room, he advertised a coaching program that, exceeding expectations, drew close to a hundred students.  Teaching basic subjects like English and Math, using strategies like peer-to-peer teaching, it was a financial success. But the experience also demonstrated to him how poorly educated the students in village schools were.

In 1988, after earning his engineering degree, Wangchuk founded Students’ Education and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) and started coaching Ladakhi student, 95% of whom used to fail the government exams.  To create lasting impact, SECMOL partnered with local government in a joint program of educational reform.  Piloted in a village school, the program involved training teachers in “creative, child-friendly, and activity-based” education; introducing curricular changes to make subjects relevant to the Ladakhi culture and context; prioritizing English over Urdu to better prepare students for higher education; and promoting the Ladakhi language.  Village education committees (VEC) were organized to support schools, monitor teacher performance, and become true stakeholders. Successfully piloted, this initiative of “localizing” schools was replicated in 33 schools and became a veritable movement.

In 1994, with Wangchuk in the lead, “Operation New Hope” (ONH) was launched to expand and consolidate the partnership-driven educational reform program.  Taking a life of its own, to date ONH has trained 700 teachers, 1000 VEC leaders, and dramatically increased the success rate of students in matriculation exams from just 5% in 1996 to 75%  by 2015.  In 1998, Wangchuk opened SECMOL School, with a permanent faculty, volunteers, and a yearly average of 300 students. An alternative boarding school that offers review, certificate, and associate-level courses, it rebuilds the students’ confidence, develops lifeskills, revisits the fundamentals and offers courses ranging from leadership training to solar power installation.  Also a model in its use of renewable energy and indigenous technology, SECMOL has produced students who have gone on to become pioneering entrepreneurs in different fields.

A natural innovator, Wangchuk works out of local experience.  Seeing how climate change has affected the natural water supply for agriculture, he seized on the idea of building artificial glaciers in the form of “ice stupas” for irrigation during the dry summer. Called “stupas” (for public appeal in a Buddhist land), these are conically-shaped ice mountains, that store water in winter and in summer melts to supply farm irrigation water.  Six stupas he and his team have created store roughly 30 million liters of water. Beyond Ladakh, Wangchuk has shared his environmental and educational innovations with mountain peoples across the whole Himalayan belt,  and as far as Switzerland.  Simple and non-confrontational in his leadership approach, Sonam Wangchuk, continues to dream of ways to help the people of Ladakh. He confidently says, “The possibilities are endless.”

In electing Sonam Wangchuk to receive the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his uniquely systematic, collaborative and community-driven reform of learning systems in remote northern India, thus improving the life opportunities of Ladakhi youth, and his constructive engagement of all sectors in local society to harness science and culture creatively for economic progress, thus setting an example for minority peoples in the world.