It’s not every day a Taiwanese Buddhist nun walks into your office and asks if she can study with you. But this is exactly what happened to me six years ago. Not only is she remarkable in every way, as you will read below, but she has this warm, calming quality about her that just makes you feel blessed to be in her presence. I’ve chosen to feature her story on this blog to celebrate her and all the wonderful international students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the years.
If you’ve ever been curious about mindfulness or about returning to education as a mature student or about studying in a second language or about doing a PhD, then read on. This interview may just provide you with the inspiration you need to make a change in your life.
What made you decide to return to education and pursue a Master’s degree in the UK?
Two reasons really. First, I really wanted to improve my English to a level that I can use the language really well across all four skills. Secondly, I wanted to return to higher education to extend my knowledge and to see how it could help me increase my potential or create opportunities for me to impact positively on society and help me fulfill my dreams.
Did you have any initial concerns/worries returning as a mature student?
I had quite severe self-doubt and lack of confidence because it had been 10 years since I left school.
And did any of these concerns materialize? If so, how did you overcome them?
Yes! I struggled so much with my first presentation. My lecturer encouraged us to talk instead of read from a script so I practised in front of the mirror over and over. But I remember very clearly that once I finished one slide and had to turn to another, my mind went completely blank. I couldn’t remember any content at all on the next slide.
My essays were also difficult. I had no idea how to approach my first essay. And because the essay question was so open, that really made me feel like I didn’t know how to do it. I was used to a very specific and structured question and this openness made me feel intimidated.
But through tutor feedback, I gradually started to understand what was required and how knowledge was constructed and presented.
You know, looking back, I realise that we should never underestimate people’s potential. Just look how far I’ve come since that first presentation. Now, I’ve given so many talks and at prestigious conferences and my last one was to an audience of around 60-70 people and it was received really well and everybody was engaged. I spoke very confidently and even went off-script for about 50% of it. So really, I’ve improved a lot. Now, I’m much more able to talk freely. I feel amazed. My presentations have undergone such a dramatic change. And now when I see my audience and they understand me and they are engaged and ask me questions, I feel a great sense of achievement.
What is your PhD topic?
I’m exploring how mindfulness is perceived and practised in my Buddhist tradition, which is Chinese Chan Buddhism.
What sort of impact do you hope your completed thesis will have in the fields of education or religion or philosophy?
I truly believe that a lot of concepts or practice in relation to mindfulness in my tradition can be widely inspiring for many people in different fields. No matter where you come from or what your job is, we all need to deal with our manners, our minds, we all have the space to improve how we react to events, how we deal with certain phenomena and how we calm ourselves down. After a busy day, we need to know how to recalibrate. And I think, or at least I’m hoping, my research can add some new insights or add more layers to our current understanding of mindfulness practice.
I wonder if you think that mindfulness can be useful to teachers, lecturers and students in everyday classrooms? And, if so, how can we build mindfulness into our lessons?
Of course! First of all, I think we need a very clear target of what it is we want our students to improve. Mindfulness is all about the quality of the mind. We believe that if we improve the quality of our minds – the concentration, the tranquility, the calmness and the clarity - we can have a real positive impact on students’ learning.
So the first thing to do is to make it clear what our aim is and then we can design small tasks to address these aims. For example, one aim might be to boost students’ concentration or another aim might be to have students focus on their breathing in order to detach from unnecessary noises in their minds.
Currently, I run a seminar on campus and at the start of each seminar I get students to stand up and do some tai chi. By getting them to pay attention to their breathing and focus on different movements, this shifts their attention to another level and helps them understand themselves.
Our minds are always active; by stopping this activity and increasing our level of awareness and knowing what we are doing, this is the beginning of disconnecting ourselves, temporarily, from threads of thought that consume our energy and are not really meaningful or constructive.
A PhD is a journey. There are ups and downs and periods of self-doubt and isolation. I wonder what you’ve learned about yourself going on this kind of journey?
I really appreciate PhD study because it not only helps me enhance my analytical, cognitive and academic skills, but it also helps me understand my limitations and shortcomings and also my emotional patterns. You know, when you encounter difficulties, you start to see how you react. Do you react by solving problems constructively or do you self-pity or do you procrastinate? It’s like good practice, monitoring how you deal with issues. I understand myself more through this journey. It’s a little bit like a meditation retreat in a way. You constantly try to challenge the boundaries in your mind, your limitations, and you try to push yourself beyond these things.
I know that you’ve also experienced some personal tragedy, sadly, on two occasions, whilst you’ve been studying here in the UK. I wonder if you might be able to tell us how you managed to cope with these events and to re-focus on your studies?
I think it’s down to your perception. It’s interesting you call them ‘tragedies.’ I don’t perceive them as tragedies. I perceive them as phenomena and they are expected phenomena. Death is natural and everybody will encounter it. It’s also down to my training in the past. I know that it is something inescapable; it’s just a matter of time. It’s just a natural phenomenon. When you change your perception, you don’t define it as tragedy. It’s just an event you need to deal with. Then you need to ask yourself how you can learn most from this phenomenon and how you can do your best in helping yourself and in helping others experience this event in a beautiful way.
The reason I wanted to talk to you is because you’re probably the best learner I’ve ever encountered. You take every opportunity to learn in every aspect of your life and you’re always looking for opportunities to better yourself. Is that fair to say?
I feel like everything in your life is a reflection of yourself; it’s a mirror for you to learn more about yourself. I just try to see everything as an opportunity to understand who I am and how I can be a better person. For me everything has meaning and value. I want to know who I am, the meaning of being here, how to be a better person and how to benefit others.
What advice would you give other international students considering post-graduate study in the UK?
I think the best advice I would give is for everyone to recognize his or her own uniqueness. Just because you come from a different cultural or linguistic background, it doesn’t mean you are inferior. Everyone has a valuable contribution to make. Together we can bring together our knowledge and experiences, learn from each other and contribute to a body of knowledge or even create new knowledge, new strategies and new solutions.
And finally, what advice would you give to lecturers and supervisors re: teaching/supervising learners with diverse cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds?
I think one fundamental thing is not forgetting that ultimately we are teaching human beings. Genuine interaction between human beings is what is important. Seeing students not as customers but as human beings with emotions, life experiences, families, dreams, etc. Each person is dynamic and constantly evolving. It’s about seeing a person holistically. They are more than a grade or an English score. If we can remember this and engage in genuine interaction - one person to another person - then hopefully we can create a better quality of education.
Ya Chu Lee is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Lancaster University (firstname.lastname@example.org)