Monday, September 21, 2020

Person of the Week

OSHS Graduate Kunsang Dorjee Celebrates his Tibetan Heritage


Headed to New Haven: Kunsang Dorjee, a member of the Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) Class of 2018 who graduated June 20, will attend Yale College in the fall. 

Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News

Headed to New Haven: Kunsang Dorjee, a member of the Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) Class of 2018 who graduated June 20, will attend Yale College in the fall. (Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

When asked what he’s passionate about, Kunsang Dorjee says, “Music,” yet “harmony” might be a better word: harmony with music in its many forms, with the world around him, with the stars above, and with the unseen in the universe that scientific theorists imagine and experimental physicists seek to find.

“From a young age, I was encouraged to be curious and to imagine things in my brain. It’s really important to imagine things you cannot see,” says Kunsang, a member of the Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) Class of 2018 who graduated June 20 who will attend Yale College in the fall.

Right now he plans to pursue studies in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects like physics, math and quantum computing. He first had the chance to test his interest in these subjects last summer when he was chosen for the Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics.

“I’ve always been interested in astronomy. [The program} was a nice opportunity to get experience in hands-on research. We researched near-earth asteroids like 2008NU and integrated the orbit over time to assess how hazardous they could be to Earth,” Kunsang says.

But writing and journalism is also an interest. This year he serves as editor of the OSHS newspaper The Rambler and explored investigative journalism with a piece he wrote examining students and cheating at the school.

And for fun, Kunsang loves to walk out in nature where it’s quiet and to play basketball or tennis.

As evident in a recent interview, Kunsang tends to project a sense of peace and harmony that seems to spread out from him. As he explains, the Tibetan Buddhism with which he was raised, and in which meditation and mindfulness are a part, is a way of life, a path to be followed.

“When I’m at home and I have the free time, I try to just be mindful and sit in silence, meditating, maybe 15 to 30 minutes a day, and I reflect on my day, things that happened, and just being present,” Kunsang says. “It is very cathartic and I feel more centered and calm afterwards.”

Being mindful and meditating is one element of the Tibetan Buddhism and its traditions in which he was raised. And following the way of life it teaches and celebrating Tibetan culture and traditions continue to be important to him. His first language—and one he still speaks at home—is Tibetan.

When Communist Chinese took over Tibet, his grandparents fled to Nepal where they lived in a small, rural village. His parents, eager for new opportunities, won visas to emigrate from Nepal to the United States, eventually landing in Old Saybrook. His mother and father now own and operate two small businesses, one Dharma Jewel store in Westbrook and one in Old Mystick Village. His dad travels to Nepal and India once or twice a year to restock the stores’ shelves with new products from that area.

The two stores are the most visible parts of a strong Tibetan cultural presence in the region.

“We have in Connecticut the Tibetan American Community of Connecticut. Once or twice a month, we have meetings, usually in Norwich. And we have prayer services, a big part of Tibetan Buddhism,” Kunsang says.

Tibetan Americans of all ages come together to showcase Tibetan dances, food, and music. The traditional music, he explains, is based on pentatonic scales and played on instruments that include a Tibetan guitar, a horn similar in sound to a didgeridoo, a wooden flute, a hand-drum struck with a mallet, and cymbals.

The music that stirs Kunsang’s passions falls in several musical genres. He explores classical music on his bassoon, for which he earned All-State honors both as a junior and a senior in the Connecticut Music Educator’s Association (CMEA) All-State competition, which culminates in the All-State music festival. As a junior, he drove to Rhode Island on Saturday mornings to rehearse with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and then performed with them at Carnegie Hall. And this summer, he will attend the University of Maine’s Maine Summer Youth Music camp in Maine, studying both bassoon and voice.

“Jeremy Taylor, my bassoon teacher [and the high school band director], was very influential and sparked a musical passion in me,” Kunsang says.

Bassoon shares a place in his heart, though, with the sounds of the vocal instrument. While at OSHS, Kunsang also explored musical theater and drama, playing Jack in the musical Into the Woods, Lucas Beinekce in The Addams Family, and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.

“The fundamental techniques that helped to sing better also help me to sing Tibetan music better,” says Kunsang.

This strong connection to Tibetan culture and Buddhism has led him to consider doing a Tibetan retreat at a monastery in Ithaca, New York this summer where he would immerse himself in monastic life for a week or two. What better preparation for his first year at Yale where the ability to remain calm and focused will be a huge help.

“I would love to keep my Tibetan culture throughout my life. I am a Tibetan and would like to showcase that,” Kunsang says.

Becky Coffey covers news for Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Becky at

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