Harper College

Harper student pursues passion in advocacy, campaigns for Tibetan rights

Dechen Atsatsang sits in the Harper College LibraryAt 19, Dechen Atsatsang is already making her mark as a prominent human rights activist in the Chicago area – and even in Washington, D.C.

A second-year student at Harper College, and second-generation Tibetan American, Dechen has been campaigning for human rights in Tibet and other humanitarian effort groups for many years. Last fall, she was invited to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) Youth Leadership Summit and advocated for immigration reform in legislative meetings with congressional offices. At the summit, student advocates from higher education institutions across the U.S. met to discuss policy issues and civic engagement impacting communities from college campuses to the nation’s capital.

Dechen, from Hoffman Estates, is currently pursuing her Associate in Arts degree in Political Science at Harper with Global Scholar and Honors Distinctions, maintaining a 4.0 GPA while working part time as a student aide in the Human Resources department.  A Promise, Distinguished Trustee and Hope Giving Circle scholar, Dechen was recently awarded the Critical Language Studies Spark Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. As a result, she will study Chinese this summer in an immersive language and culture program.

Despite her interest in advocacy, Dechen wasn’t always set on majoring in poli-sci.

“Like many other liberal arts majors, I had those worries that maybe this isn’t as practical as I think,” Dechen said. “I had fears that I might not be able to get a job.”

A turning point came when Dechen took her First Year Seminar course at Harper. She said she was grateful for the support and wisdom offered by Philosophy Professor John Garcia.

“He had this joke that we owe it to ourselves to heal our inner child,” Dechen said, “and that worrying about practicality over what we’re passionate about is like letting that inner child die.”

Dechen’s passion is obvious. She serves as president of both the Tibetan Youth Council and Students for a Free Tibet Chicago (which she helped found), campaigning for Tibetans’ right to political freedom, and developing workshops which work to connect Tibetan children with their cultural heritage. She also volunteered for Machik Weekend, a Tibetan Ideas Festival for global civic engagement, public service, and a celebration of art and storytellers in Washington.

Dechen Atsatsang poses in the Harper College library

“In the Tibetan community there is a saying that anyone who is born after the 1959 occupation of Tibet [by the Chinese government] is born an activist,” she said. 

Because of her heritage, Dechen says that she has always felt a personal responsibility to uplift the voices of those facing persecution and censorship. She spoke openly about how deeply moved she was growing up, hearing the stories of family members who had to flee to other countries, as well as the struggles of Tibetans living in Tibet, facing devastating cultural repression.

During Harper’s International Education Week last fall, Dechen gave a presentation detailing adversities faced by Tibetans in exile and the resiliency of the global community to preserve their rich cultural heritage. Additionally, Dechen has founded a chapter of Amnesty International at Harper to promote human rights awareness and advocacy on campus.

Dechen says she is thankful for the support of faculty who helped connect her with opportunities to educate and advocate as a Tibetan American, those who supported her decision to wholeheartedly commit to a political science degree, as well as the Harper representatives whom she met back as a senior at Fremd High School and shared the scholarship opportunities that have made her Harper education possible.

She has achieved so much for someone who is still so young. In March 2023, Dechen was thrilled to finally get the opportunity to attend Tibet Lobby Day and later participated in the Tibetan Youth Leadership Program hosted by the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington.

“It was so cool. This was the first year I was actually able to fly out in person and meet face to face with members of congress and their staffers,” Dechen said. “I got to advocate for the Resolve Tibet Act and talk about Tibet and why this issue is so close to my heart.”

In conversation, Dechen radiates compassion and curiosity. As a leader in the Harper community and the Tibetan community, she is a great example of the opportunities which can open up for students who pursue their passions.

“There are students who you encounter, who you can tell that they approach things with more than just intellect, that it comes from a deeper part of who they are. And that’s the thing that sets Dechen apart more than anything else,” Professor Garcia said. “There’s a kind of deep sense of self at the heart of what guides her work.”

Regarding her plans for the future, Dechen said she would be happy in a lot of different careers, whether in foreign service, education, human rights, or humanitarian work. Set to graduate from Harper in May, she reflected on her time at the college.

“Harper really exemplifies community and challenges the social stigma that a lot of community colleges face,” she said. “There are so many places to make friends and it's a great place to work too. I am really glad I said yes to Harper.”

Last Updated: 3/21/24