Center for Community Engagement

Bridging years of advocacy and scholarship with life at Amherst: Professor Paola Zamperini brings Tibet to the classroom and beyond

Paola Zamperini
September 2012—Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations Paola Zamperini has begun, by all measures, an exciting year — and she’ll be the first to tell you that this year has been twenty years in the making.

From an art exhibit to medidation sessions to community-based learning, Professor Zamperini has carefully orchestrated a full year’s worth of community and college events focusing on Tibetan culture, identity, and religion. She’s teamed up with Maria Heim, associate professor of Religion and Buddhist Studies and chair of the Religion department, and Elizabeth Barker, director of the Mead Art Museum, to launch Picturing Enlightenment— a yearlong exhibit featuring the Mead’s collection of 18 mostly Tibetan scroll paintings, known as thangka (pronounced tank-ah). In conjunction with the currently underway installation are lectures, film screenings, and meditations that will continue throughout the year. This spring, Zamperini will debut Beyond Shangri-La: Narratives of Tibet, East and West, a course where students will seek to understand Tibetan identity while getting to know the local Tibetan community through oral history interviews. Zamperini hopes this year will shed light on a people and culture that “very few know about.”

For Zamperini, this year means finally bridging the gap between her twenty years of Tibetan scholarship and advocacy and her academic life at Amherst College. While a graduate student of Chinese literature at the University of California-Berkeley, she developed a fast interest in Buddhism, ultimately leading her to a rich relationship with Tibetan culture. To date, she has spent over two decades traveling back and forth to Tibet, researching and sharing her work in an attempt to help preserve knowledge on Tibetan culture. Zamperini has sat on the board of the Conway, Massachusetts-based Shang Shung Institute for Tibetan Studies, and cultivated strong friendships with the Tibetan community in the Pioneer Valley. The local Tibetan population is around 150 people, and according to Zamperini, that’s a big number for a Tibetan community in diaspora.

Until recently, a lack of formal training on Tibet led Zamperini to shy away from teaching about it. “I always thought, I have a PhD in Chinese studies. Am I really qualified to teach about Tibet?” Over time, the question began to weigh more heavily on her— in no small part because very few faculty in the Five Colleges were teaching about Tibet. Last year, Zamperini found herself presented with an opportunity that gave her just the push she needed. It was the coincidental timing of two seemingly unrelated events: first, Zamperini discovered that the Mead Art Museum was restoring its thangka collection after having been in storage for almost sixty years. Around the same time, she learned of the Center for Community Engagement’s Engaged Scholarship Initiative: a source of funding to support faculty in developing or continuing community-based learning or research. “I had kind of a ‘duh!’ moment,” she says. “I thought—why is it that I’m so enthusiastic about Tibetan culture [and] so committed to work with the Tibetan community, and somehow I’ve never brought this to bear on my life at Amherst College?” The Mead exhibition and the Engaged Scholarship Initiative offered Zamperini exactly the right combination of “courage and resources” to develop a course and collaborate with the Mead on this year’s events. She sees her role this year as somewhat of a facilitator of knowledge-sharing— bringing speakers, religious leaders, and filmmakers to campus to teach about Tibet.  “Tibetan culture is really going extinct,” Zamperini reflects, “and there’s nothing to be done about it, except to create situations for people to become more aware of Tibet and Tibetan culture.”

Guru Sengye Gra-grogs, Eighth Manifestation of Guru Padmasambhava

Zamperini’s upcoming course, Beyond Shangri-La, is a more in-depth continuation of this urgent sharing of knowledge. Students will begin the semester by investigating Asian and Western conceptualizations of Tibetan identity and, in turn, Tibet itself. They won't be confined to learning about Tibet only through scholarly texts, however: under the guidance of the Shang Shung Institute for Tibetan Studies and the Tibetan Association of Western Massachusetts, they will initiate a groundbreaking oral history project with the Pioneer Valley’s Tibetan community. From conducting in-depth interviews to editing in post-production, the students will execute oral history interviews that will be the first to populate a database of Tibetan oral histories. “The idea [behind the course] is really to bring visibility to Tibetan culture, not necessarily by only privileging the academic,” Zamperini explains. The course not only functions as an important educational opportunity for Amherst and Five College students, but as a crucial component to the preservation of Tibetan culture and memory.  Zamperini is acutely aware of just how powerful this project could be for the local community. “Many people have told me that they cannot tell their children their stories, or that their children are not interested in their stories. As long as their stories are somewhere, maybe one day their children will be interested… I’m very, very happy that the Tibetans who will be involved in the class will have a chance to tell their stories in a way that stays.”

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Listen to Professor Zamperini talk about her course in a soapbox lecture at the Community Engagement Expo.

Picturing Enlightenment opened at the Mead Art Museum in August and runs all year. To learn more about the exhibit, go here. Visit Professor Zamperini’s course website here.

Jenny Morgan is a staff writer for the CCE. She enjoys public radio, olive picking, and homemade pancakes. She welcomes any questions or comments at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.