- Baha’is believe in the power of prayer and you’ll find Baha’is and their friends, throughout the world, getting together to pray. This is often referred to as a ‘devotional gathering’ or ‘devotional meeting’, and they happen in diverse settings, whether in cities or villages.
The Baha’i Teachings stress the importance of universal education, and there are countless Baha’i Writings which emphasize the importance of education. Baha’u’llah Writes:
Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being and are conductive to this exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to a man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. 1
Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom. 2
It’s no wonder, therefore, that numerous educational institutions have been established by Baha’is around the world, and one of these establishments is a school called the “Ocean of Light International School”, located in the South Pacific nation of Tonga.
I caught up with Soheyla Bolouri, who along with her husband Sohrab, live in Tonga and have been serving on the school’s Board of Trustees since the school’s inception in 1996. Here’s what she had to say:
Baha’i Blog: Hi Soheyla! Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
Our names are Soheyla and Sohrab Bolouri. We pioneered to Tonga in 1987 from the United States of America. We were born in Iran and moved to the States in 1976, before the revolution. After living in America for 11 years, we felt it was time to relocate to a smaller country/Island and settle there and assist with the growth of the Baha’i activities.
Sohrab served as the Treasurer of the National Assembly for 26 years and I served as Assistant, Auxiliary Board member, Continental Board of Counsellor and now I serve as a tutor, animator and children’s class teacher. I have served as the Secretary of the Board of Education of the School and Sohrab has been the Treasurer for 23 years. We had a computer business and later Sohrab was engaged to bring submarine fiber optic cable to improve the telecommunications in all islands of Tonga. We are now retired and strictly focus on serving the School as volunteers. In 1995 an Australian gentleman, Mr. Peter Warner who lived in Tonga for many years and after returning to Australia had accepted the Baha’i Faith, returned to Tonga for a visit and made a recommendation to the National Assembly to establish a Baha’i school. The National Assembly accepted the idea and appointed a Board of Trustees to proceed with the necessary requirements of obtaining the approval of the Government, registration and establishment of the school. Ocean of Light School was registered under the name of the National Spiritual Assembly of Tonga as a Charitable Trust entity.
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little about Tonga?
Tonga is a beautiful little Polynesian island in the South Pacific Ocean with about 170 islands of which 36 are inhabited. The landmass is about 700 square kilometers and about 100,000 people live in the three main island groups. Tonga being in the south makes a triangle shape with Fiji in the northwest and Samoa in the northeast. It is about a three-hour flight to New Zealand. It has a warm climate for most of the year with high humidity and very pleasant winters where the temperature drops to a nice and comfortable 20-25 degree Celcius. People are warm and kind-hearted. The explorer Captain Cook who traveled to these islands in 1773, called it the “Friendly Islands” because he was shown hospitality and congeniality. Tonga is a Kingdom and has never been colonized. The Baha’i Faith came to its shores by two Knights of Baha’u’llah in 1954 who arrived within six months of each other, Mr. Stanley Bolton from Australia and Mr. & Mrs. Dudley Blakely from the United States. The Baha’i community is advancing especially in the main island of Tongatapu where the seat of the capital rests and the core activities are in the hundreds and the cluster is nearing the 3rd milestone. The outer islands of Tonga have Baha’i communities as well and almost everyone knows about someone who is a Baha’i.
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about the school?
Ocean of Light Primary opened its doors on 5 March 1996, offering a composite primary class of 1, 2 & 3 only to accommodate nine students who enrolled and were from a multi-racial and multi-faith background. The School gradually grew and added more classes with more teachers and students until the first group of students were ready to enter their secondary education and the parents by popular demand pleaded to the School Board to expand to secondary education. Reluctantly the Board acquiesced to this plea but felt that it could be beyond its capacity and the physical space available. The classrooms became fuller and the waiting list longer. From early stages the philosophy of the school was:
• To provide an education of internationally recognized standards in the forms of academic, moral, physical and spiritual development
• To nurture the love of learning in the school community.
• To provide a safe, happy and encouraging environment.
• To teach, practice and role model the virtues.
• To acknowledge “Unity in Diversity”.
• To be confident in sharing our hidden talents and to prepare us for what we may encounter in life.
• To connect the school community with the wider community.
• To develop the capacity of the school community to serve humanity.
• To encourage and develop a sense of curiosity and life skills to empower students to make informed choices.
After a few years, the school grew to over 300 students, and the Board had no choice but to look for a piece of land and begin the construction of two buildings, primary and secondary. In 2004 His Royal Highness Tupouto’a the Crown Prince of Tonga opened the two buildings that were built on a six-acre piece of land about two kilometers outside of town.
The Board after much consultation in 2005 decided to implement the Cambridge International Examination System from the United Kingdom where the senior high school students sit an external examination and the passing results are accepted in most major universities around the world. This is a demanding syllabus and requires much training on the part of the teachers and strenuous work on the part of the students. Eventually, this program was introduced to junior high school and now in the primary division which has significantly enhanced the standard of the academic education at the School.
Baha’i Blog: What has the response been like so far?
The initial response from the community was not with a lot of receptivity but rather a great deal of apprehension, as parents might have thought “this little Baha’i community of Tonga has embarked on opening a little school which might be used as a tool for proselytizing to our children which will lead to their eventual forced conversion”. But as time passed the wider community realized that this is a school that strives for excellence in trying to provide a high standard of academic and especially moral and spiritual education. It is not directly teaching the tenets of the Baha’i Faith but inculcates in the children those spiritual qualities and virtues common to all Faiths which sets these children apart. So, by essentially word of mouth, more and more Tongan families from all strata of society decided to enroll their children. From the onset, various schemes for scholarship and reduced fees were introduced to accommodate students from the lower socio-economic categories of society.
Baha’i Blog: What’s something you can share about the school that has touched you both personally?
We are touched by the fact that students who graduate from this School have aspired to pursue their higher education and contribute to the betterment of their societies wherever they are. They have taken away with them those qualities and life skills that will equip them for life, to choose the right path, to fulfill their purpose in life and to strive and reach their fullest potential.
Baha’i Blog: How has your being a Baha’i influenced the school and all that it has to offer?
In 2008 I was invited to a seminar facilitated by the Baha’i World Centre’s Office of the Social and Economic Development in India, where many Baha’i schools or Baha’i-inspired schools were represented. For the first time, I understood how the Baha’i identity of Ocean of Light can be enhanced by implementing within the school the Baha’i Educational Process underway in the world (the Ruhi Institute). This process began in 2009 in earnest and the teachers of the School, the majority of whom are not Baha’is, all were asked to enter the study of the first Ruhi book, “Reflections on the Life of the Spirit”, followed by the Baha’i principles of Education (book 3) in the sequence of the courses. This resulted in establishing devotional gatherings in the School where students and teachers organize the program. Grades 1, 2 & 3 of the children’s class materials were implemented, and some are taught by teachers who are not Baha’is. The Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program was rolled out and eight books in the sequence of its texts are being animated in junior high school in the span of two years and in the senior high school the students undergo books 1, 3 & 5 in the sequence of Ruhi courses. Service projects are being carried out within the School and on occasion, outside of the School. High school students assist in running the children’s classes or they carry out reading programs for the primary students. This to me has had a transformative effect on the spirit of the School and all, including parents, have come to support and appreciate these undertakings and feel this is a distinguishing aspect of our school. As result, there are fewer major discipline issues in the School, and occasional minor ones are resolved by counseling the students and bringing to their attention their innate ability to be good, and to demonstrate to the rest their desire to strive to be better than the norm.
Baha’i Blog: What future plans do you have for the school, or where do you hope to see it in the next 5-10 years?
The School continues to grow, and as of last year, we had 180 students on its waiting list. The present roll is 580 from Kindergarten to year 12 of high school which comprises of many races and nationalities, but the majority of the student population is Tongan. As a result, last year the Board decided to double the primary division and the junior high school. This decision will result in the students of the junior high school needing two classes in the senior level for next year and we have to begin building additional classrooms now. The School pays for all its developments from the school fees it collects and through kind contributions from generous donors. Additionally, we will have to raise funds to build rooms for science and Information Technology labs, possibly an art room, and one or two classrooms. Our long term vision is to eventually establish a division of the School to train teachers who graduate from the training college in Tonga or overseas, to undergo a six months course of hands-on additional training at Ocean of Light. So far through the grace of Baha’u’llah, whenever the School needed additional buildings, someone has appeared and has offered assistance, and as result, two big buildings of the primary and high school were built. Then the School needed a multi-purpose hall and again miraculously someone offered financial assistance. The last project was the building of the Early Childhood Centre, and again, a generous person offered a low-interest loan. We are confident that the funds for additional high school buildings will be found.
Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, and congratulations to all those involved in the development of this wonderful school!
How can people find out more about the school?
To find out more information about the school, please visit: www.oceanoflight.to, or watch this introductory video: Introducing the Ocean of Light International School
You can also send the school an email using: [email protected]
- Epistle to the Son of the Wolf: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/epistle-son-wolf/1#804716281
- Gleanings from The Writings of Baha’u’llah: https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/bahaullah/gleanings-writings-bahaullah/1#529444114
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