Penpa Dolma, a Tibetan refugee, earns degree in psychology, puts her focus on helping end homelessness in city
Penpa Dolma and her husband, Brett Engle, both graduated with bachelor’s degrees in psychology at Spring Commencement at the University of Colorado Denver. Photos by Glenn Asakawa.
Penpa Dolma. The name exudes a certain grace. Penpa means “Saturday”—the day of her birth—and Dolma is a female Buddha of compassion. But Dolma, a former Tibetan refugee, once had a name devoid of poetry.
She was known simply as “2796,” as in the 2,796th student enrolled in the Tibetan Children’s Village, a school for Tibetan refugees, in Dharamsala, India. Long removed from that time and place—but not from the experience, which shaped her—Dolma earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from CU Denver on Saturday, May 17.
Dolma moved to the refugee camp when she was 4½, after her family suffered greatly in the wake of China’s occupation of Tibet. Dolma is one of eight children, but four of her siblings died. The occupation wreaked havoc on the very social fabric of their lives. “Our way of life—spirituality, health, education, everything—was disrupted.”
She ended up at the refugee school called Tibetan Children’s Village that had been founded by the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. “The goal of the education was to make you a good human being,” said Dolma, now 33. “If I have to attribute where I got my philosophy and my grounding, I feel it came from that school. I never felt lost here.”
“Here” being Colorado, where she arrived at age 27. In 2006, Dolma was approached by the Denver-based PeaceJam Foundation to help coordinate a group of Tibetan students to create a water system for a slum area of Dharamsala. The project proved highly successful and Dolma was offered a two-year internship at PeaceJam’s Arvada office.
Standing on the principles of education, inspiration and action, PeaceJam is led by 13 Nobel Peace Laureates who mentor youth and organize humanitarian projects worldwide. The nonprofit shaped Dolma’s personal life as well. Her husband, Brett Engle, is the son of PeaceJam’s founders—Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff—and a CU Denver graduate; along with Dolma, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology this May.
Dolma initially considered a career in nursing, mainly because the profession is gratifying but also because if offered strong employment prospects. “In my first semester, I knew the field of psychology was the right choice for me. I knew I just had to stop being afraid and pursue it with full sincerity. The whole school experience for me has been about letting go of my fears.”
Having grown up as a refugee, the prospect of gaining a measure of material security, then losing it, was a palpable fear. But then Dolma noticed that such anxiety was common here, too.
‘Beauty of this country’
“I thought, ‘What’s the difference between being born in an affluent, abundant country and one where you are deprived and poor?'” she said. “I started letting go. That’s the beauty of this country. I saw the opportunities for a willing heart, willing to take a chance.”
She loved her experience in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “The openness of this place gave me a greater curiosity. I enjoy learning, and the professors in the Psychology Department were very kind and helpful. I made personal connections with many professors that I hope I keep.”
Dolma’s long-term objectives include graduate- and doctorate-level academic degrees, but she wants to first perform the type of “call-to-action” work she did with the PeaceJam Foundation. Seeing Denver’s homeless problem has struck her to the core. “Having grown up as a refugee, my whole life has been a testament to other people’s generosity,” she said. She wants to establish village for the homeless in Denver that offers them sustainable living, life-skills education and a community.
“We all see the problems, but we don’t want to face them,” she said. “I draw my inspiration from a vision of the world where there’s less inequality, injustice, poverty and suffering. I’m looking at how will I create a world like that? What is my contribution?”
Another near-term goal, albeit a bit less ambitious, is her plan to produce a spicy concoction. Dolma wants to grow her own chiles and turn them into an all-purpose sauce (photo at right). She doesn’t want to sell the sauce, but rather accept donations from people who want to spice up their diet. “It is an opportunity to practice generosity for both sides,” she said. Dolma is also passionate about writing poetry, drawing and taking photographs; she worked for a time as a fashion photographer in Delhi.
While at CU Denver, the practicing Tibetan Buddhist led mindfulness meditation and was part of a Buddhist meditation club on campus.
Dolma served as vice president of the campus chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and she volunteered for the Harm Reduction Action Center. She views the nation’s lengthy “war on drugs” as counterproductive. “It’s based on punishment and, even from a behaviorist’s point of view, that never really works. It’s very detrimental in the long term.”
As a part of SSDP, the students collaborated with the Harm Reduction Action Center, which serves the homeless and drug addicts through syringe exchanges, education and advocacy. “The idea is to not stigmatize them, not shun them, not ignore them,” she said, “because the problems are not going to go away on their own.”
For Dolma, every day is an opportunity to live mindfully, spiritually and compassionately. Those practices have given her strength and resilience in the face of life’s many challenges. She embraces the balance—the Eastern traditions of her upbringing blended with the best attributes of Western culture. “There’s a lot of tolerance in the education system here,” she said of CU Denver. “I’ve always felt I could say what I wanted and be heard.”
Just as she excelled in her refugee school, and just as she mobilized the delivery of clean water to a slum, Dolma will undoubtedly make her mark here—for the homeless, for the forgotten, for folks who struggle.
“I feel it’s an achievable goal,” she said of the homeless village project. “I feel like Colorado has the right environment. We have the resources, the talent and the people. We just need to be humble and collaborate.”