Columbia GS Student Veteran Pursues Passion for Buddhist Studies Across the Globe
“It’s monsoon season, I’m in a rickshaw, and these roads are literally falling apart,” recalled James Gasper ‘24GS of his summer experience in India. Besides participating in a two-week long rickshaw race in the Himalayas, his summer included a study abroad experience in which he came face-to-face with the Dalai Lama, a silent meditation retreat, and independent travel via motorcycle on even more treacherous, mudslide-prone roads.
You could call this itinerary adventurous, chaotic, life-changing, courageous, or any combination thereof. What’s for sure, though, is that Gasper enjoyed every second of it. “I feel like incredible would be an understatement,” is how he put it. That’s a sentiment that can apply to much of his time at GS, where he has wholeheartedly pursued eclectic endeavors and unconventional experiences. Driven by an unshakeable commitment to staying true to his own instincts and interests, something fostered in the military and further nurtured by Columbia faculty support, Gasper is proving that a GS student’s nontraditional path isn’t simply what leads them to Columbia; It can be something they cultivate to new and extraordinary heights at GS.
“Wanting to help people is a big reason why I joined the military. To help people, that means you have to be so good at what you do within your own life, because if you’re going to help anybody else, you have to create this foundation for yourself.”
Gasper’s road to GS can be traced back to the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, where he served five years as an intelligence analyst. “What I ended up taking away from it was the quality of integrity, of attuning and transforming the self into a multi-faceted being who can help people,” said Gasper of the enduring impact of his military experiences. “Wanting to help people is a big reason why I joined the military. To help people, that means you have to be so good at what you do within your own life, because if you’re going to help anybody else, you have to create this foundation for yourself.”
Gasper’s understanding that altruism is only made possible through self-development prompted him to look inward to guide his post-military endeavors. A lifelong interest in East Asia led him to envision a future in diplomacy, and word-of-mouth brought him to Columbia GS as the academic launching pad for his goals.
At Columbia’s Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures (EALAC), Gasper has found a plethora of opportunities and support. He credits EALAC faculty for giving him the resources and confidence to tackle learning Chinese nearly from scratch, with a transformative study abroad immersion experience over the summer in Taiwan fast-tracking his language studies. Besides intensive classes, Gasper spent much of his time in Taiwan exploring local neighborhoods and hiking Taiwan’s tallest peaks, experiences he said not only helped him put his Chinese skills to the test, but also enabled him to flesh out the cultural context of his linguistic studies. “If anybody is interested in learning a language, go study abroad,” advised Gasper. “It’s such an amazing opportunity to have, and there’s no comparison to replicate it.”
Gasper also credits the support of Columbia faculty, especially Professor David Kittay of the Department of Religion, with empowering him to move beyond a more typical trajectory to grasp what truly excites him in the field of East Asian Studies. For Gasper, that meant letting go of his initial diplomatic aspirations, a path that made “intellectual sense,” as he put it, due to his military background but wasn’t reflective of his academic and professional passions. It was through a Buddhism course taught by Professor Kittay that Gasper started to see a new path forward. “Professor Kittay is one of the best professors at Columbia,” shared Gasper. “He truly cares about you and your mental health, and that cultivated a great learning environment.”
During the course, Gasper became fascinated by the potential to apply Buddhist philosophical principles within psychology, particularly zeroing in on using Buddhist frameworks to improve introspection with the aim of enabling people to better discern self-sabotaging behaviors. “I could feel my life changing as I was taking this class,” he recalled, and in subsequent semesters Gasper has built on that momentum and continued to cultivate a unique intersectional arena of expertise, conducting research on the parallels between Buddhist meditation and psychedelic therapy, and examining the potential of Buddhist practices to strengthen the rapport between mental health care providers and patients.
Notably, Gasper sought and achieved admission into the prestigious BA/MA program in Religion, which allows undergraduate students to begin masters coursework in their senior year. Gasper will earn his BA from GS in 2024, his MA in Religion from the Columbia Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 2025, and then plans to pursue a PhD in psychology.
All of this leads back to India, where his study abroad program supported his Buddhist studies by providing extraordinary access to the Tibetan Buddhist community living in India. Gasper had the opportunity to meet with many Geshe, a term applied to venerated monks, spent time living in a monastery, and yes, had the chance to meet with the Dalai Lama. “We had a private audience with the Dalai Lama, which also incorporated me being able to ask the Dalai Lama a personal question about my life,” said Gasper. “It was such an interesting thing to reflect on: if you get to ask one of the wisest men in the world a single question, what would it be?” Appropriately, Gasper’s own answer to that inquiry is between him and the Dalai Lama!
Gasper’s summer experiences in India, from the formal study abroad program to his own independent adventures in the country on rickshaw and motorcycle, not to mention his time in Taiwan and BA/MA studies at Columbia, are all proof of the extraordinary opportunities that can arise when you pursue your passions full-throttle. For Gasper, getting to this moment required having the courage to turn away from a clear, well-traveled professional path in favor of building a road all his own. Reflecting on his journey the past few years, Gasper shared that he’s realized “nobody can give you the answer. You have to figure it out for yourself. That’s kind of scary, but that’s also what makes all of this so exciting.”
“Find what you love, what sparks the fire and passion, and relentlessly pursue it. If you feel passionate about it, everything else will kind of fall in line."
Even amidst the exhilarating uncertainty, Gasper said one idea has been his constant guide: “Find what you love, what sparks the fire and passion, and relentlessly pursue it. If you feel passionate about it, everything else will kind of fall in line. It comes back to what I was saying about how, first, you have to take care of yourself. If you love what you’re doing, it’s gonna make you feel good. And if you feel good, you’re going to vibrate and draw in other people with that energy.” He concluded, “the things you’re ‘supposed to do’ don’t matter. In my opinion, it’s all about following what sets your fire off.”