Resettled Bhutanese Community in the U.S Breaks the Educational Glass Ceiling!

By NRB Editorial

The resettled Bhutanese community in the United States has made significant strides when it comes to their educational achievement. From overcoming hurdles to get accepted into top schools, to completing programs in fields of their choice, members of the community are showing the world that with hard work, determination, and a drive to achieve, even the farthest seeming dreams can be achieved. This editorial provides a brief historical background of education in Bhutan and highlights a few remarkable stories of members of the Lhotshampa community in the United States.

Background

Prior to the Wangchuk Dynasty, the education system in Bhutan was primarily run by monastic institutions. The government of Bhutan introduced modern education in the late 50s  with the support from India. Tsue kye, Hindi, and English were taught and Hindi was the medium of instruction. With the inception of the first five-year development plan in the early 60s, English replaced Hindi as the medium of instruction.  Subjects such as History, Geography, English, Science, Math, and Nepali were introduced. The national language Dzongkha was introduced in all the schools in the late sixties.

The Royal Government of Bhutan made education free for all and encouraged parents to send their children to school. It hired teachers from India. Despite government support and encouragement for free education, very few individuals from the Lhotshampa community attended colleges. This was in part due to the farming community preferring to keep their children at home to work on the farm and in part due to the taboo of sending girls to school. Back then, one could easily count the number of individuals completing high schools.

A giant leap in education began in the 80s. For instance, there were a number of Lhotshampa community members who graduated from professional schools in India, especially in the field of medicine and engineering. As soon as they finished their education, the government of Bhutan recruited them to serve in government jobs. Additionally, the government sent a handful of students abroad for further training in specialized fields, primarily healthcare and engineering. The most common destinations were India, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, the U.K., New Zealand, and the United States.

Dr. DNS Dhakal is an outlier among these few individuals. After completing an engineering degree from India, he received a Master in Public Administration from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Colorado School of Mines, becoming the first Bhutanese to hold a Ph.D. Initially, he worked as an economic advisor to the government of Bhutan and later taught at Harvard University followed by Duke University; which he continues to this day. He is a role model and an inspiration to many younger generation aspiring to excel in the academia.

When the political conflict started in 1989, it led to the Nepali subject being removed from the school curriculum. This was followed by the exile of approximately 1/6 of Bhutan’s population or 100,000 Lhotshampas. As a result, the Lhotshampa community’s socio-economic condition was pushed down 100-fold below the poverty line. Their children, including high school- and college- going students, had to abruptly halt their education.

The political machinery who engineered the political problem in Bhutan perhaps thought that these Lothampas after becoming refugees would join the labor forces in Nepal and India and the issue would gradually fade-way, subsequently resolving the growing concerns of demographic imbalance among ruling elites. However, destiny had another thing in store for them.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with assistance from the government of Nepal, provided protection and shelter to the Lhotshampa refugees beginning 1990 continuing to today. When bilateral negotiations between Bhutan and Nepal failed to provide an amicable solution, the refugees were provided third country resettlement starting 2008. Today, they live in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Netherland, Norway and Denmark. True to their nature, these hardworking people strived hard to pave their ways in various professional sectors in their country of resettlement.

One of these sectors where they were able to make the giant leap is their entry into tertiary education!

Prior to coming to the United States, community members with professional degree recertified their academic credentials, got through entrance examinations and continued their professions. Professionals like Dr. Khem Adhikari, Dr. Purna Chhetri, Dr. Kamal Gautam, Dr. Ram Rizal, and Dr. Chhabi Sharma are doing wonderfully well in their medical professions and are the living examples of success stories in the United States.

Other community members like Prem Biswa (PharmD- Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine), Deena Dahal (PharmD- North Dakota State University), Barun Dhakal (PharmD- Washington State University), Dimple Dhakal (PharmD- University of Georgia), Dasharat Dulal (PharmD- John Fisher College), Puspa Kafley (PharmD- University of Arizona),  Parmananda Khatiwada (PhD student- University of Minnesota), Tek Neopaney (PharmD- University of Arizona), Dr. Manoj Pradhan (PharmD- Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine), Prajapati Sapkota (PhD student-State University of New York), Dr. Naresh Subba (PhD- Kent State University) and  Chandra Sintury (PharmD- University of Arizona) are trailblazing in professional studies. Additional members will be highlighted in a follow-up article.

Today, approximately 95,000 Bhutanese refugees are resettled in the United States. Among them, around 33% of them are school going children and 5% go to community colleges and universities.  They have joined primarily in the healthcare field such as Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Pharmacy, and Medicine. Other areas include Information Technology and Engineering.

Around 500 Bhutanese high school graduates join universities in the United States every year. It includes universities like John Hopkins University, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, Virginia Institute of Technology, Penn State University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Minnesota, Ohio State University, University of Kentucky, University of Massachusetts and the list goes on. This number does not include students joining community colleges. We will write another editorial about them.

Below we highlight community members who have made it to Ivy League schools, medical schools, or other institutions of higher learning for a Ph.D. These community members joining such universities and professions within a short span of time after resettlement is indeed a matter of pride for all Bhutanese and a source of inspiration.

For this editorial, we chose to highlight these individuals to celebrate their achievements especially given that getting into Ivy League schools and professional schools was a remote possibility in Bhutan and in the refugee camps for the Lhotshampa community. We could not reach out many students for interview and few declined to be featured in this editorial.

AbishkarAbishkar Chhetri, Computer Engineering student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Abishkar was born in a refugee camp in Nepal. His parents came from Samchi, Bhutan. He attended primary school in the refugee camp and completed his high school in Atlanta where he was the valedictorian.  Currently, he is a 3rd year Computer Science student at MIT. He is interested in working in the industry and ultimately get involved in entrepreneurship. “As long as you are willing to put in the work, your background won’t hold you back, especially here in America”, said Mr. Chhetri.

Chandr Diwash ChhetriChandra Divyash Chhetri, DO student, Midwestern University College of Osteopathic Medicine

Chandra Divyash Chhetri was born in Nepal. His parents are from Dagana, Bhutan. He completed his early education in Kalimpong, India and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Barrett Honors College of Arizona State University, where he majored in genetics. He is currently a medical student at Midwestern University College of Osteopathic Medicine. He wishes to encourage all youth to pursue their dreams with concerted effort and vigorous persistence and he believes that success is achieved through strong resolution, hard work, and integrity.

KN DahalKN Dahal, Ph.D. student, Oakland University

KN Dahal was born in Sibsoo, Bhutan and completed primary school there. He attended high school in a refugee camp, and received an undergraduate and Master’s Degree in Physics from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Currently, he is getting a Ph.D. in medical physics from Oakland University, Michigan. His interest is in research and teaching.

“Everybody can attain tertiary education degree like Ph.D., provided they have interest and commitment to do it,” said Mr. Dahal.

Dora DhakalDora Dhakal, MD, Yale University

Dora Dhakal was born in Thimphu, Bhutan. She received her primary education in Nepal and India and completed her high school in the United States. After completing medical school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., she is now undergoing residency at Yale University in New Haven, CT. “Despite many challenges that exist in this nation, it offers us all a wonderful opportunity to achieve our dreams. These opportunities are not going to be easy, but if they are worthwhile they will come with challenges. You must work very hard and accept that your dreams will require persistence. And if you keep pushing forward, then you will get there. If I can be of any guidance somewhere along your journey of pursuing higher education, especially in the field of medicine, then please do not hesitate to reach out to me,” said Dr. Dhakal.

Totadari DhimalTotadri Dhimal, MD Student, University of Rochester

Totadri Dhimal was born in a refugee camp. His parents are from Gelephu, Bhutan. He attended primary school in a refugee camp, high school in Syracuse, and received his bachelors from Syracuse University. Currently, he is studying medicine at University of Rochester School of Medicine. “To be successful in life, you need to be internally motivated. In medicine, we become students for the lifetime; learning never stops. One has to keep studying to keep up with new information. So, understand the profession that you want to pursue because it’s not just your career, it becomes your way of life. Don’t be afraid to seek help or wisdom from someone that has been through the process and be true to your work ethic as that you will make a huge difference in achieving your goals in life,” said Mr. Dhimal.

Yadu DhitalYadhu Dhital, MD Student, Georgetown University

Yadhu Dhital was born in a refugee camp in Nepal. His parents are from Dagana, Bhutan. He attended high school in a refugee camp and graduated from University of Pittsburgh in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Natural Sciences and a certificate in Conceptual Foundations in Medicine. Currently, he is a medical student at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. “There are a lot of challenges like uneducated parents, lack of guidance, language barrier. However, if one learns from these challenges, they will succeed in life,” said Mr. Dhital. He aspires to become an expert on refugee and immigrant health, and to make significant contributions towards reducing national and global health disparities.

Ravi GhimireyRavi Ghimiray, PharmD, University of Minnesota

Ravi Ghimiray was born in Gelephu, Bhutan. He completed his primary school in Gelephu, high school in refugee camps in Nepal, Grade 12 in Kalimpong, India, and PharmD at the University of Minnesota. Currently, he works at Walmart as a Pharmacy Manager in Missouri. “I gained some experience first in pharmacy by involving as a community pharmacy person, pharmacy technician or shadowing pharmacy staff before pursuing Doctor in Pharmacy. This will refine your interest and skills in Pharmacy,” said Dr. Ghimiray.

Hemant GhisingHemant (Lama) Ghising, PhD Student, University of Vermont

Hemant (Lama) Ghising was born in Sarbang, Bhutan. He did his primary and middle schools in Sarbhang, high school from refugee camp and undergraduate from Loyola College Sikkim, North Bengal University in India. He received his masters from Tribhuvan University (MPA and MA-Sociology) in Nepal. Currently, he is getting a Ph.D. in education from University of Vermont and plans to graduate in May 2019. He looks forward to teaching in colleges someday. His major research interest is in immigrant & refugee education, higher education administration, accessibility to higher education, adult education, social justice and equity, leadership, and policy studies. “One needs to set goals and remain persistent to achieve it to be successful,” said Mr. Ghising.

Nipen KatelNipen Katel, DO Student, Lincoln Memorial University

Nipen Katel was born in Bhutan, completed his high school from DAV in Kathmandu, Nepal, and has a Bachelor degree in Biological Science from Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA. He is currently a third-year medical student at Lincoln Memorial University and is projected to graduate in the year 2019. He said that “Per Adua Ad Astra”, which translates to “Through hard work to the starts”. “Never ever give up on your dreams. Always be patient and work hard on your goals and success shall follow,” said Mr. Katel.

Thakur KharelThakur Kharel, Computer Science Student, Stanford University

Thakur Kharel was born in a refugee camp. His parents are from Lamidara, Bhutan. He did his high school in Minnesota and is currently getting a Bachelors in Engineering in Computer Science. His interest is in artificial intelligence and dreams to work in the corporate world like Microsoft and Google. “Do hard work and help one another. Ultimately, we need to empower our community as well,” said Mr. Kharel.

Dr. KhatriDr. DB Khatri, Ph.D., North Carolina Central University

Dr. Khatri was born in Sharbang, Bhutan. He completed his primary school in Sarbhang, high school in refugee camps, and undergraduate and graduate degrees in Microbiology from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Recently, he completed Ph.D. from the North Carolina Central University. He has specialized in Neurobiology and his interest is in biomedical research and teaching. “It is never late for higher education. People can do anything anytime as this country is truly a land of opportunity,” said Dr. Khatri.

Subash NepalSubash Nepal, Ph.D. Student, University of Kentucky

Subash was born in Lamidara, Bhutan. He attended primary school in Haa Jr. High School and high school in refugee camps in Nepal. He received his undergraduate and master’s degree in Physics from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Currently, he is doing Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics (particle physics) from the University of Kentucky. His interest is to work in research institute as a data scientist. “One needs to totally focus and should not be distracted by the materialistic world if interested to do tertiary education like Ph.D. People do higher studies to achieve personal satisfaction too,” said Mr. Nepal.

Lok PokhrelLok (Lokesh) Pokhrel, Professional Flight Pilot, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Lok Pokharel was born in Gelephu, Bhutan. He attended high school in the refugee camps in Nepal and finished his grade 12 in Denver, Colorado. He received his undergraduate degree from the Metropolitan State University of Denver in Aviation Technology. Currently, he works at Star Mariana airlines as Air Tour and Island to Island Pilot in Guam. His goal is to work in popular commercial flights like Delta or United or American Airlines. “One needs to be motivated for a professional development and be responsible for what one is doing,” said Pilot Pokhrel.

Hari SubediHari Subedi, Ph.D. student, Princeton University

Hari Subedi was born in Chirang, Bhutan.  He completed his high school in a refugee camp in Nepal. He did his undergraduate from the University of Arizona and is currently doing his final year Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. His interest is to work in research institutes. Currently, he is doing an internship at NASA.  “For the younger generation, I would say…have a dream. It is essential to strive for something. Work hard to make your dreams come true. Don’t be afraid to seek help if required and maintain a work-life balance. You should have fun in your life too,” said Mr. Subedi.

Conclusion

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically, said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With the growing number of people pursuing their passions through education, the Lhothsampa community is building a strong base of engaged critical thinkers. The community faced many limitations to achieving their dreams while in refugee camps. Yet many persevered, making the most of their circumstances to attain an education. As shown by the highlighted stories, many of the community members are continuing to work hard and creating opportunities for themselves in their adopted country. These opportunities allow not just for their own prosperity, but also empower them to contribute to their new country the United States of American and their country of origin Bhutan.

Editor’s note: Richa Sharma from University of Minnesota, Bidhya Chhetri from Phonix, Arizona also contributed to this report.

Reference

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