Nepal student’s American dream shattered – then rescued

Growing up, Rupesh Koirala imagines a place he has never seen. Far beyond the mountains, across a wide ocean, lies the country where many great colleges are said to stand. How he will ever afford to get a degree in the United States, he does not know. Still, he believes.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Where he lives, in eastern Nepal, the land bears every shade of green. His small village, Kumarkhat, lies on the bank of a river, near the vast jungle. No one there has an internet connection, but cellphones work fine. His family grows its own vegetables and rice.

Year after year, Koirala studies hard. His parents are teachers, and their strictness and support both sharpen his resolve. He earns straight As, succeeds at the National Astronomy Olympiad. His scores on the national engineering exam put him in the top 1% of test takers.

That entitles him to study at the prestigious Institute of Engineering in Pulchowk. But the brown-eyed teenager with the earnest gaze wants more than anything to study computer science on an American campus.

Then a friend tells Koirala about the University of Texas at Tyler, which has a brand-new scholarship, open to international students. He applies. In January the acceptance comes, along with the scholarship, a full ride worth about US$27,000 a year. Happiness overtakes him.

Everyone celebrates over a dinner of roast chicken. His father glows with pride, encouraging him to dream big, praising him in front of his uncles. Don’t forget the family, he also tells his son. Don’t forget Nepal. The young man feels the pull of many emotions. He is Texas-bound.

Texas scholarships rescinded

In mid-April, on the last day of the Nepali calendar, Koirala’s Facebook page lights up with New Year’s greetings. Then he opens an email from an admissions officer at Tyler: The university has rescinded his scholarship, citing "extraordinary demand" this year. Tyler has promised more than it can give.

Koirala is one of 61 Nepali students who lose the full scholarships they have been promised. Tyler offers them instead a US$5,000 annual scholarship and reduced tuition, which would leave them with a five-figure gap. "We apologise," the email says, "for any inconvenience."

After reading the words, Koirala sits on the edge of his bed, covering his face with a blanket. He hears sounds of revelry in the village. Behind his eyes a dream is falling, crashing, vanishing. He doesn’t tell his parents for a week.

By then, Koirala has long since given up a precious seat at the Institute of Engineering. It’s too late to get it back. He has nowhere to go. Shocked, confused, he keeps his cool as best he can. He searches online for another American college with room to spare and money to give. Is it possible? Is it too late?

Despair gives way to hope. Koirala and many other Nepali students get round-the-clock guidance from Selena Malla, an educational adviser in Nepal. From Joan Liu, a college adviser in Singapore. From Emily Dobson, an independent college counselor in Brazil.

Many others help, too. These volunteers marvel at the students, each of whom has a 4.0 grade-point average and at least a 1350 on the SAT. Most come from families with little or no money.

Koirala knows his parents can spend only US$4,000 a year on college. Hopeful, he applies to one campus, then another. Acceptances come back from Drexel University. Ramapo College of New Jersey. The University of Dallas.

But the financial-aid awards aren’t enough. One university leaves him with a US$30,000 annual gap. The smallest is US$15,000, three times what his parents earn in a year. The offers aren’t options; they’re the illusions of options.

Responding to a disgrace

News of the rescinded scholarships spreads quickly. People call it a disgrace, a scandal, a global college-access crisis. In the United States, many higher-education officials gasp. Some take action.

On the last day of April, Wendy C Beckemeyer wakes before 6am and reads about the revoked scholarships. She emails an article in The Chronicle to several colleagues at Robert Morris University, near Pittsburgh. Hours later, campus leaders devise a plan.

Each year, Robert Morris gives its top scholarship, covering tuition and fees, to 15 freshmen. This year, officials decide, a 16th scholarship will go to one of the Nepali students. The university invites them to apply. All those who qualify for smaller scholarships, the students learn, will get them.

Stretching the budget, Beckemeyer believes, is well worth it. She’s the university’s vice-president for enrolment management, a job loaded with metrics. But there are no metrics for this, dozens of young people, stranded by circumstance.

Each night, thoughts of the Nepali students follow Beckemeyer home. She tells her husband about them; her son, too. She sends an urgent email to her counterparts at other colleges, describing the Nepali students as exceptional in every way.

"I know budgets are tight," she writes, "but chief enrolment officers are also creative, and in difficult times seem to find ways to help those students who need our support."

Beckemeyer emails frequently with Liu, in Singapore. The college adviser forwards her a heartfelt letter about the students’ plight; later, Beckemeyer reads it aloud at a gathering of enrolment leaders, in Washington DC. At least one of them follows up with Liu.

Far away, Koirala completes an application to Robert Morris. Twenty-four other Nepali students do the same. Then, they wait.

Someday Koirala hopes to start a software company in Nepal. But that seems like a lifetime away when he doesn’t know where he will end up in August. Maybe nowhere at all.

Gripped by doubts, each day he meditates, does his stretches and aerobic exercises. After Tyler took back his scholarship, he writes in an email, "the fire and energy that I previously possessed were drained."

A new opportunity

In mid-May, Robert Morris makes a decision. It offers Koirala the big scholarship on a Thursday. Excited, he studies the award letter. The scholarship knocks more than US$30,000 off the cost of attendance. The university has offered to cover the cost of books and travel, while kicking in another US$7,000, in smaller grants and a campus job. He must work all year, including summer, to make the numbers work.

At the bottom of the letter is an estimate of Koirala’s unmet annual need: US$6,302. His heart tumbles. There’s no way, he thinks, that he can afford it.

The sun goes down in Nepal. Friday dawns in Pennsylvania. Though Beckemeyer believes that Robert Morris has made a solid offer, she knows that Koirala might not be able to close the gap. Her gut tells her that, no matter what, she will find a way to help him.

Sometimes, rescue comes from an unexpected source. Beckemeyer isn’t thinking about that when she heads to a meeting that morning. While speaking to a committee of trustees, she mentions Koirala’s situation. It’s meant as an enrolment update, not a plea.

Yet Richard E Archer hears the urgency. He grew up near Pittsburgh and, the first in his family to attend college, graduated from Robert Morris in 1983. His father, who worked for the local electric company, passed down a strong work ethic. He credits his alma mater, though, for opening his eyes, sharpening his skills, and helping him think beyond the corner of the world he had known.

Early on, Archer took to information technology and business. Now he’s a partner at KPMG, one of the world’s largest accounting firms, and wears an RMU pin on his lapel. When Beckemeyer describes Koirala, he imagines a young man for whom the university could be a gateway to another life, just as it was for him.

I wonder if there’s something I can do to help? he thinks. And then he thinks, How can I not?

After the meeting, Archer walks up to Beckemeyer. If you need me to write a check, and that would help the student come, he tells her, I’d be glad to, if I’m not overstepping my bounds.

Stunned, she looks up at him. Are you serious? she asks. He is.

She explains that Koirala will have a gap each year. For four years.

I’ll cover all four years, he says. Absolutely.

A shiver goes through her. She asks him a question: Can I hug you?

, he says, you can hug me.

After that, Archer pulls a neatly folded handkerchief from his pocket and hands it to Beckemeyer, who’s crying. For the cost of a Toyota Prius, he will enable a young man he’s never met, from a place he’s never seen, to attend the university he loves.

Minutes later, Koirala gets the good news. His mouth opens, but no words come.

The universities that stepped up

Charity isn’t the word for what some colleges do to help the Nepali students this spring. Kindness? Generosity? Sure, those fit. But this isn’t charity, where the giver expects nothing in return. College access isn’t a one-way street, a gift benefiting only the recipient.

No, the administrators who OK 11th-hour aid packages know what their campuses will almost certainly get back. Great students, ambitious and talented, who carry compelling stories, perspectives from the other side of the world. These are the kind of students colleges say that they want.

As Memorial Day weekend begins, more than two dozen of the 61 Nepali students have found another campus to attend. The list of colleges providing a full ride (or close) to one or more of those students isn’t long. It includes no Ivy League colleges. No institutions atop US News & World Report’s annual rankings. None of the nation’s 20 wealthiest campuses.

Drake and Texas Christian. Trinity College and SUNY Korea. Akron and Denver. Kentucky and Idaho. Susquehanna and Drexel. Those are the institutions that first step up, along with Robert Morris.

As May winds down, Koirala reads up on Pittsburgh. He uses Google Earth to look at photos of his future campus. He plans to fall in love with it.

His friends insist on celebrating with him. But it wouldn’t be right, he says. Not until all the would-have-been Tyler students find another college. Sometimes, though, moved by "extreme joy", he dances alone in his room.

Koirala types many messages. He reaches out to Nepali organisations in the United States, seeking help for the other students. He also writes a long email to Beckemeyer and several other people at Robert Morris.

He will remember how the university helped him, he writes, until the very last moment of his life. He vows that he won’t let his own success make him selfish: "I promise to keep my arms open for everyone and be responsible for my community … to help people find happiness in their life."

Rupesh Koirala is going to college. All because a handful of people asked themselves what they could do, and then did it. Far beyond the mountains, across a wide ocean, lies a country where many great colleges are said to stand. Soon, he will get there. He will see it with his own eyes.