Rybak teaches in Nepal as Fulbright scholar

June 8, 2010

Currently on sabbatical in Nepal, Educational Leadership and Human Development Department Chair Dr. Christopher Rybak provides an update of his work as a Fulbright scholar in that country.

Kathmandu, Nepal

Dr. Chris Rybak

Dr. Chris Rybak conducts a two-day group counseling workshop with psychology master's students at Fergusson College in Pune, Maharashtra, India.

I had the good fortune to be named a Fulbright Senior Scholar for my sabbatical this fall. My primary mission is to help Kathmandu University School of Education develop a graduate curriculum for counseling. I am also conducting research on indigenous healing and psychosocial rehabilitation, extending the research I had conducted in my previous Fulbright supported program in India in 2002. While Nepal has quite a bit in common culturally with India via the influence of Hinduism, there are many ethnic groups in Nepal that are culturally connected to Tibetan Buddhism and more ancient religious practices that originated in the varied mountain regions and valleys separated by extremely rugged landscape.

Kathmandu and Nepal are located at the “roof of the world” in the Himalayan Mountains, where Mount Everest, Annapurna, and many other peaks brush shoulders with the clouds. A steady stream of westerners and other tourists and trekkers filter through the city. Tourism is one of the major sources of income with every Nepali rupee needed. There is great physical beauty in the land that draws the tourists. This is despite the incredible distance from places like the United States of America. Getting here requires more than 20 hours in the air. I left Peoria on a Saturday morning and arrived in Kathmandu (via Chicago and Hong Kong) on a Sunday night in a steady drizzle.

It was the monsoon season, which I thought was no big deal—so what if it rains daily? One day I set out from my apartment to walk to the Fulbright office. I felt a few drops as I left. Ten minutes later, a torrential downpour was coming. I stopped in the local Bhat-Bhateni supermarket for a few minutes to get out of the rain and see if it would abate. It didn’t. I was running late for a meeting, so I resumed walking and getting soaked with only a rain hat—no umbrella or rain jacket. Before long I was stopped by a narrow part of the road that had become a mini river rushing between brick walls on either side. I tried to get a taxi to take me around, but, of course, they were all occupied. Finally I found a back alley around the deepest part of the water, but I still had to slog through water up to my calves. It was just great for my new shoes and for me, as I was on my way to Kathmandu University for the first time to meet College of Education officials with whom I will be working during my time here.

I was drenched when I got to the Fulbright. I rode with Yamal, the program officer of the office. A driver threaded his way through the flooded streets and got us to KU. I found out for the first time that both the dean and acting dean of the School of Education are graduates of the School of Education at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale—my alma mater! This connection is a big plus, as it gives us a more common understanding of counseling, but they will also be familiar with what is needed in the Nepali context. We’ll see what can be done in Nepal in a very different cultural and economic climate.

According to the recent report on human development by the United Nations, Nepal ranks 144th overall in terms of the human development index (USA is 13th). Adult literacy is 130th and gross enrollment in education is 136th in Nepal (as reported in the October 6, 2009, edition of The Himalayan daily newspaper). Deep poverty and little opportunity touch a huge portion of the population. I’m finding that counseling as it is understood in the west does not yet exist for but a handful of Nepali people. For many, counseling is simply advice giving.

There are a number of International Nongovernment Organizations (INGOs) and Nongovernment Organizations (NGOs) that offer some limited counseling services. I am in the process of making the rounds to these organizations as well as to some schools to get a sense of what kinds of counseling resources are here and more information about what the needs are for counselor training. Many of these organizations have developed their own short-term counselor training classes and manuals, primarily for paraprofessionals. Most of what passes for counseling here seems to be conducted by paraprofessionals. The more I dig into the issues that are here, the more I can see the huge extent of the needs.

The other day I visited a very impressive organization called the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Fund (NYOF). This organization has set out to help the most disadvantaged youth in this society, including those who have physical disabilities, learning disabilities, abandoned children, orphaned children, children of the lowest castes, and indentured children, with a special emphasis on girls who tend to have the most limited opportunities. NYOF helps with housing, education, and some counseling. They cite the huge need for counseling to help these children develop and maintain hope for a better future. They could use expertise especially in working with learning disabilities, saying that there is little instruction in Nepal regarding special education, so teachers and others often do not understand the struggles the students are experiencing. NYOF has established Ankur Counseling Center that has a vibrant and dedicated staff of counselors (see photo). In recent years, a play therapist from the USA has been offering training in sand tray therapy along with quite a collection of play therapy toys and tools. The counselors are most grateful and share their training and experience through classes to teachers and mental health workers. They cite the urgent need for more advanced counselor training and supervision in Nepal.

Fullbright Office

Fulbright headquarters in Kathmandu.

Another organization I have visited is called the World Education Centre. They are likewise engaged in a broad effort to rescue children from harsh conditions of child labor through offering educational opportunities and some vocational counseling. They work with children who’ve been traumatized by the armed conflicts here of past years. This organization also trains paraprofessionals with some counseling skills, but recognizes the limits of brief training. The World Education Centre is also highly involved in outreach programs with teachers to help them better understand the conditions that children are facing.

One of the special Nepali persons I met here is Matrika Devkota who is waging a valiant effort to establish a mental health advocacy organization to lobby for greater attention to mental health issues and to advocate for the rights of mental health service users. The organization is named Koshish. They are also working tirelessly to reduce the stigma and rampant misunderstanding of mental illness in Nepal.

I just completed presentations to the Kathmandu University School of Management faculty and then also to a graduate research class on Mindfulness and Neuroscience. As a part of that presentation, I was able to introduce them to the 21st century biofeedback program called Heartmath. Faculty members and students took turns in experiencing the program, and most remarked that they enjoyed it.

As one of its posters proclaims “No Health without Mental Health,” the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently cited the great need for increased availability of mental health services, especially for impoverished populations. On its Web site (www.who.int/mental_health/en/), WHO describes its current campaign to ramp up mental health services throughout the world so that those now suffering unnecessarily by the lack of mental health services may be assisted so that they can lead normal lives.

Quite a number of compassionate folks from different walks of life have come to Nepal to put forth the efforts of their lives to try to alleviate suffering. I am glad to contribute what I can in a place where social justice is so limited, but resources are paper thin or nonexistent and, so, must be developed. I recognize that much, much more will be needed for many years after I leave Nepal in December to return to Bradley. There is a great deal yet to be done with much opportunity for service.