Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.
The University of Texas at El Paso first adopted its unique Bhutanese architecture in campus buildings completed in 1917. It wasn’t until a half-century later that the university’s bond with the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan began to evolve into the strong and mutually beneficial partnership that today benefits students and the El Paso community.
In the late 1960s, UTEP’s News and Information Director Dale Walker sent a letter to Bhutan seeking comments on the university’s Bhutanese-inspired architecture.
Walker received a response from a member of the Bhutanese royal family who found it “thrilling and deeply moving” that a university in far-off America would erect buildings modeled after her native Bhutan. That was the beginning of an official relationship between UTEP and the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Not long after Walker’s first contact with the Bhutanese royal family, Jigme “Jimmy” Dorji arrived on campus as the university’s first Bhutanese student. Dorji studied engineering and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1978.
Since 1995, more than two dozen other Bhutanese students have earned degrees at UTEP.
“Students from all over the world study at UTEP,” said UTEP Vice President of Student Affairs Gary Edens, Ed.D. “With them comes a diversity of thoughts, backgrounds and experiences. These different perspectives enrich the learning environment on campus for all students. The unique and very special relationship between UTEP and the Kingdom of Bhutan is strengthened when our students can learn from each other.”
As the Bhutanese students began to arrive on campus in the 1990s, so did several artifacts that are now displayed around the University. Hand embroidered tapestries depicting powerful Bhutanese symbols adorn the walls in the University Library and Undergraduate Learning Center.
UTEP also is home to Bhutanese ceremonial flags, a prayer wheel and a small building called a lhakhang that will be used as a Bhutanese cultural center when it opens to the public in the fall.
In 2003, UTEP began bringing Bhutanese athletes and performers to campus for a series of “Bhutan Days” events. These performances and demonstrations were open to the public and coincided with museum exhibits depicting life in the remote Himalayan kingdom.
The first year, Bhutan’s Olympic archery team demonstrated its skills in Sun Bowl Stadium.
Bhutan Days 2005 featured musicians from the country’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts demonstrating traditional Bhutanese instruments.
Community children came to campus to taste Bhutanese dishes and learn about the country through sand painting and storytelling.
UTEP’s Bhutan Festival in 2008 included folk and mask dance performances in the Don Haskins Center. A dance workshop explored the differences between the Bhutanese dances and the traditional forms of dance in the Paso del Norte region.
Bhutan’s Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck attended the 2008 festival and spoke to the crowd of about 8,000 assembled in the Don Haskins Center.
“Your connections with Bhutan are not just the oldest in the United States, they are among the oldest in the world,” Wangchuck said.
The prince went on to talk about Bhtuan’s special relationship with UTEP, which had become much more than a shared architecture.
Since the prince’s visit, UTEP’s relationship with Bhutan has continued to grow, and once again the university will provide a venue for the El Paso community to learn more about Bhutanese culture.
As part of its Centennial Celebration, UTEP will host a unique evening of music and dance. Opera Bhutan’s Acis and Galatea was first performed in Bhutan in October 2013 and makes its U.S. debut at 6 p.m. Saturday in at the Don Haskins Center. The one-night production is free and open to the public.
Jenn Crawford is the director of editorial services for UTEP's University Communications Office.