Two University at Buffalo students are spending their winter break volunteering at a remote school in Nepal—and it’s not just a service trip. For Pemba Sherpa and Hemanta Adhikari, it’s a homecoming 10 years in the making.
Sherpa was nine years old when her family moved from Kathmandu to Queens, New York. She started second grade in New York City public schools and felt welcomed but “shy, quiet, just reserved.”
“I would say that I wasn’t fully comfortable until my high school,” Sherpa said. “I think every immigrant student or child that immigrates and comes to the U.S. at that age, they go through similar experiences.”
One tiresome embarrassment Sherpa remembers is the reaction she would get from both students and adults after they learned where she was from.
“Whenever I would tell people, ‘I'm from Nepal,’ they would not know where that is. They'd be like, ‘Where? What? Napoleon?’”
After a while, Sherpa stopped wanting to tell people at all.
Nepal, is, of course, the South Asian country located between India and the autonomous region of Tibet in China. It’s famous for Mt. Everest, which is in the same region where Sherpa was born. Sherpa is also the name of a Nepali ethnic group.
“We are known for climbing Mt. Everest, but we're so much more than that. There's so much culture, history, behind my people.”
Sherpa’s family came to the United States as immigrants, driven like so many by the dream of greater economic and educational opportunity.
“My parents didn't go to school. My mom didn't go to school, so growing up I was always taught to value education, and there was always that push to go to college and get that degree and make it for yourself.”
Today, Sherpa is proud to be a first-generation college student double majoring in psychology and legal studies at UB, where she said the diverse study body has helped her embrace her Nepali roots.
“I completely agree with Pemba,” Sherpa’s friend and fellow Nepali-born UB senior Adhikari said. “I am also the first person in my family to attend college and it is a very proud thing.”
Adhikari lived in a camp populated primarily by Bhutanese refugees, near Nepal’s southern border with India, before her family was resettled to Buffalo through Catholic Charities in 2009. She attended P.S. #19 Native American Magnet School and P.S. #309 East High School in the Buffalo Public Schools and is now a biological sciences major on the pre-med track.
“Both of my parents never even attended elementary school, so they always wanted me to do my best, no matter what,” Adhikari said. “I feel like it is a way to actually bring a positive change to the world through the education system.”
That’s what she and Sherpa are trying to do now. The women are spending their winter break from UB delivering school supplies and winter jackets to a remote village in the Himalayas called Sanogumela. It’s the first time either of them will be going back to Nepal, and, for Sherpa, it means a return to her hometown and former school.
“It’s so beautiful there and I'm so excited, like I don't have words for how excited I am to actually go there. I told her [Adhikari], I'm going to start jumping at the airport, that’s my first move,” said Sherpa, laughing.
Sherpa is also looking forward to reuniting with extended family members in both Kathmandu and Sanogumela, including her grandmother and cousin, who’s now a teacher at Shree Janasewa Basic School.
Even though Adhikari is from a different part of Nepal, she said she can relate to the 130 students at Sherpa’s former school because of her own experience growing up.
“For me, it's like going back, reflecting back to my childhood and just like giving back to the community because after coming to the U.S., I've just been like having so much opportunities and resources that I can always take advantage of.”
Adhikari and Sherpa have been planning their trip with the support of UB’s Experiential Learning Network, which encourages students to apply their studies to the real world. They’ve also raised nearly $5,000 to purchase supplies.
“The students’ needs were more for the clothing and the shoes because during the winter season it's really hard for them to walk from their house to the school because it's like [an] average of one hour [of] walking,” Adhikari said.
That’s one hour, each way, in the highest mountain range on Earth. And not unlike Buffalo, Sanogumela can be bitterly cold or blisteringly hot depending on the time of year.
Sherpa said the students walk because the alpine terrain makes motorized transportation impossible.
“There's no form of transportation,” she said. “And for us to actually even get to the village, we have to walk four hours from where the nearest airport [Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla] is to where the school is located.”
Sherpa said it was important to her to not just drop off the supplies and leave. So, she and Adhikari also designed two educational activities they plan to work on with the students while staying in the village for two or three weeks. The lesson for younger learners focuses on local, organic food systems, which the women see as a way to both instill pride and educate Nepali students about nutrition.
The activity for older learners is about connecting the classroom to the real world: Sherpa and Adhikari plan to encourage students to work in teams to come up with solutions for challenges in their community.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on like math, science, but not so much on critical thinking and problem solving and team building,” Sherpa said, “and these are the skills that are important to students, especially in these areas, because a lot of them don't go out to obtain a higher education degree.”
Students from poor families and those who live long distances from school—like the children in Sanogumela —are also more likely to drop out of elementary and high school, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In 2016, about 74% of all Nepali students finished ninth grade, and girls were less likely to continue on to high school than boys.
That’s a future Adhikari once envisioned for herself.
“I never thought I would be able to attend a university in America,” she said. “It’s like living two lives at once, like I had my previous life back in Nepal until the age of 10, and from age of 11 ‘till [the] age of 20 my life literally shifted. It was flipped upside down.”
Sherpa and Adhikari will spend a total of five weeks in Nepal. They plan to return to Buffalo in late January, just in time for their final semester at UB.