Bridging the gap: Bringing Cambridge and Tibet a little closer

Julia Stanyard 30 January 2016

Based here in Cambridge, ELST – English Language Studies for Tibetans – is a charity involved in promoting English language teaching and education in Tibetan communities, both organising volunteer teaching in the exile communities of India, Nepal and Mongolia, and supporting Tibetan students to come and study in Cambridge. This week, I spoke with Hilary Papworth, ELST founder and Cambridge resident, and Yum Skyid, Tibetan student at Murray Edwards studying for an MPhil with the help of a scholarship from ELST.

Hilary tells me how it all began: “ELST sprang to life nearly 20 years ago.  My husband Bill and I were on a trip to India and received a request for help from a young Doctor of Tibetan Traditional Medicine.  He needed better English skills in order to communicate with the numerous Indian patients who flocked to their  Tibetan Medicine clinic.  Subsequently over the years, many bright young professional Tibetans; teachers, doctors, monks, administrators, translators to the Dalai Lama, all from the exile community in India came to Cambridge. Generally they found their short but intense English Language programmes and encounters with people and ideas in the wider world enriching.  All were selected on individual merit and those Tibetans are now a remarkable Tibetan exile alumni group, including the Director of Tibet House, the Senior Manager of the Dalai Lama's Foundation for Universal Responsibility (founded with his Nobel Peace Prize money) and the Director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.”

From these beginnings, ELST has evolved a lot over the years, including the founding of a university society associated with the charity (CUELST) by a returning volunteer. Each year the society helps student volunteers organise teaching placements in Tibetan communities, ranging across India, Nepal and Mongolia, from Ulaan Bataar to Dharamsala, from big cities to remote areas.

While ELST provides volunteers with support, advice and what Hilary describes as a ‘seed-corn grant’ of a small amount of money, volunteers are largely expected to take responsibility for their own placements, offering a level of independence which sets them apart from other volunteering opportunities in Cambridge. “Volunteers are expected to uphold ELST and CU-ELST's good name and to return with an account of their achievements and experiences.”

While daunting, this independence definitely brings its own rewards. As Hilary describes, “the great thing about ELST/CU-ELST is that the volunteers are wanted and appreciated by their host communities and it can be a hugely enriching experience for the volunteers themselves. They give a lot and they get a lot in return.”

However, while CUELST gets on with organising the volunteer placements, ELST itself is busy with other matters, not least of which is the Williams Papworth Studentship, supporting postgraduate students from the Tibetan Plateau or surrounding regions to study in Cambridge.

Hilary is enthusiastic about the work that the scholarship does: “So far [the studentship] has associated with three wonderful students.” The latest of these is Yum Skyid, a Tibetan student from the eastern Qinghai province of China who began her education MPhil last October. Yum describes her experience of Cambridge with great enthusiasm: “I never thought I would ever have a chance to study at Cambridge, one of the best universities in the world, but the studentship made it a reality.

“Studying in Cambridge will be a life-changing experience for me not only because it helps me realise my academic potential but also because the diversity of ideas and values I have seen here makes me become more respectful to other people and other cultures.

Yum plans to continue at Cambridge for her PhD. What with this, and the prospect of CU-ELST recruiting a fresh cohort of volunteers over the next few weeks, it promises to be a bright future for the organisation.


CUELST is still recruiting for its cohort of summer volunteers until Sunday (31st January). To get in touch for the application form, email