For Brandman professor, Nepal earthquake is close to home
It’s been a year since Dr. Jeffrey Lee was in Nepal but this week, it’s where his heart is.
As pictures and stories make their way out of the earthquake devastated cities and villages, Lee, a professor in Brandman’s School of Education, keeps track of friends through social media and waits anxiously for word from the most remote regions closest to the quake’s epicenter.
“This is such a tragic event. On the one hand, the people of Nepal are so strong and have persevered through so much. But on the other hand, coming out of a civil war, in the infancy stages of forming their first democracy, they have been through so much in such a short time, I can’t even put it into words the devastation this must have caused for so many of the people I have worked with,” said Lee, who goes to Nepal both for academic research and to work with the nonprofit Community Development Network.
Lee was teaching in a Buena Park elementary school and working toward his doctorate in education 10 years ago when his passion for education, technology and helping less privileged communities led him to Nepal, one of the least technologically advanced and most impoverished nations. He’s returned each summer, with the exception of last summer, to spend one or two months in various villages.
Lee worked at the grass-roots level, alongside local stakeholders, to help Telecenters – places where villagers could connect by phone and eventually computer to the greater world – develop more sustainable models of funding rather than relying on the national government or charities. At the same time, using the data and stories he had gathered for his research, Lee was working with various Nepal ministries to affect policy change.
“Long-term sustainable change has to happen at the policy level,” he said. This is even more important in a place such as Nepal, where the average annual income is $700, making it among the poorest and most underdeveloped nations in the world.
Lee’s most recent projects include working with the national deaf and hard of hearing community, using donated iPads installed with adaptive technology, and holding workshops for the Nepalese English Language Teachers Association on best practices for second-language learners.
But a few days after the 7.8 earthquake, it was the people in Gorkha district that he was remembering.
The village of Maskichaap in the Gorkha district is a very progressive community, he said, with a strong emphasis on equality. They invited him to visit six years ago to help them figure out technology. The big excitement at the time: electricity was within 300 meters of the village. The next year it was within 200 meters.
While walking the area with a group of community leaders, Lee noticed an older man with a stack of papers was following them. “I think he wants to talk to me,” Lee told the group. “Can somebody translate?”
What Lee didn’t need a translation for was the word he heard used several times: e-commerce. The man had been winning prizes for growing the best oranges in Nepal and he wanted to tap an international market through e-commerce. Could Lee help?
Even in a country still recovering from a long civil war, “people are aware of what they can do if only they had the opportunity,” said Lee.
“The people of Nepal are beautiful. Their communities are rich in culture and rooted in tradition. Their ideas of success are not always measurable by our usual measures,” said Lee, who also works closely with young Nepalese through various youth centers. “The youth are on fire to have a better future. Unilaterally, every youth I talk to wants to get a good education. They want to leave the country for that education but each and every one wants to come back and build a better Nepal.”
Lee says the youth are also behind a technological “leapfrogging affect.” Smart phones recharged by solar power have kept them in touch through Facebook and other social media this week even when other means of communication have failed.
The road back from the Nepal earthquake will be difficult, made more so by a fragile government, said Lee. “It’s an interesting dynamic even in stable times. The Nepalese government doesn’t have the infrastructure to make large-scale change.” Buildings go up haphazardly. “Even if there were building codes, there’s no infrastructure to enforce them.”
Lee plans to return to Nepal in the next year to check on several projects, including research on the impact of the assistive technology project for the deaf and hard of hearing. He’s also interested in studying the impact technology is having on a culture that’s very relational. He wonders if text messaging will replace the “falcha,” traditional open areas where people gathered at the end of most days to mingle, and how that will be viewed by various age groups.
In the meantime, he’ll be working with Brandman students on leveraging technology in a “meaningful and purposeful” way to become better educators and hoping that the village of Maskichaap still exists.
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