Pratima Thami woke up before her alarm could chime. She slid out of the bottom bunk and dressed in the fading dark. The hostel she called home was quiet. Careful not to wake her roommate, she shut the door gently behind her. A high-stakes Saturday began.
Outside, Pratima saw the sun rising over the smog-veiled city. Short and slight, with deep-brown eyes, she met the world with a gentle gaze. In her backpack, this morning’s essentials: ID. Water. Calculator. Pencils, sharpened.
Pratima, 17, was about to take the October SAT. After months of studying, she felt confident enough. Still, at the testing center, in a too-cold classroom, she felt the sting of nervousness, too. The exam on her desk wasn’t just a booklet full of questions. It was a crucial turn on the long, winding path to the West.
For most Nepalis, as for many underserved students around the world, the path is fraught and lonely. Those hoping to study in the United States face an especially tough task. The application requirements are unfamiliar, the fees are high, and a student visa is hard to get. Most applicants lack a college counselor, a knowledgeable guide. They must go it alone.
Their stories speak to the promise of American higher education, a prize dangling before the whole world, yet beyond the reach of most. To grasp it requires determination, know-how, and luck — and, often, a lot of money.
Hope drives young Nepalis across oceans. Desperation, too. One of the world’s poorest countries, Nepal offers high-school graduates limited educational and employment opportunities. Many see foreign colleges as the best chance to escape hardship, build a career, and earn more money.
But economic motivations don’t quite explain everything. The heart of a Kathmandu kid beats the same way as the heart of a Chicago kid. Why wouldn’t both desire everything an American campus can offer? Pratima, whose country has a rigid educational system, wanted freedom and flexibility. Fond of math and dance, she wanted to choose her own courses and absorb new ideas, to join campus clubs and meet people from all over. “To know myself better,” she said. She wanted The College Experience.
merican institutions promise that. What they don’t promise is funding. International students in the United States get relatively little financial aid, and Pratima would need a full ride. She hoped she could scrape together $1,000 a year, half the cost of a plane ticket to the States.
As Pratima bubbled in answers on the SAT, she didn’t know if her score would help her stand out among thousands of applicants from dozens of countries. She didn’t know if she could somehow snare a big scholarship. When she put down her pencil after four hours, she just knew this: More challenges were coming.
Soon, she would have to take more tests. Then, decide where to apply. And then, hardest of all, write a personal essay in English, her second language, a language you could speak for years and still not know how all the words fit together.
The Ghanta Ghar clock tower rises over central Kathmandu.
In early October, anticipation coursed through Kathmandu’s zigzagging streets. Dashain, Nepal’s biggest festival, was coming. The 15-day celebration symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. Families reunite, schools close, and people fly kites reminding the god Indra to please halt the rain.
As the holiday approached, strands of glowing marigolds appeared in doorways. Women at the bead market bought red, green, and yellow necklaces. Inside a lush park called the Garden of Dreams, men assembled a traditional rope-and-bamboo swing that would soon sail children high into the air.
A different kind of anticipation propelled chattering teenagers to a small white building on Pashupati Road. Five days a week, those hoping to study in the States flock to the EducationUSA Advising Center, part of the United States Education Foundation. It’s a refuge from the city’s screaming traffic and throat-coating pollution. Supported by the U.S. State Department and the Nepali government, the center offers something scarce in this country: free, reliable information about applying to American colleges.
On a Wednesday morning, three dozen teenagers came for an introductory information session. Most Nepalis apply to American colleges only after finishing high school; before that, they’re too focused on preparing for big exams. All of today’s visitors, it seemed, had graduated months earlier.
The room was full when Selena Malla, the center’s educational adviser, introduced herself. “My first question to you today is, What would you like to learn about?” “Scholarships,” a young man said.
“Who else,” Selena asked, looking around, “wants to learn about scholarships?”
Every hand went up.
“Studying in the U.S.,” she said, “is really, really, really … what?”
“Expensive,” many replied.
Selena, a serene 38-year-old, grew up in Kathmandu and graduated from Wellesley College. She liked helping students understand the admissions process, encouraging them. But she refused to deal out false hope. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for Nepali students to end up at colleges they couldn’t afford, work illegally to make ends meet, and then spend five or more years getting a degree, if they ever got one at all.
The audience, earnest and eager, called out many reasons for wanting to attend college in the States (“a better environment!,” “the best institutions in the world!”). Yet those institutions weren’t an option for everyone, Selena told them, because of the cost, $12,000 to $65,000 per year.
“Per year,” she said again.
Some teenagers groaned. A young man in scuffed Nikes solemnly shook his head.
These college hopefuls lived in a landlocked nation of 29 million people. On a map, Nepal is a jagged sliver that looks like it’s being squashed on all sides by China and India. Those two massive countries accounted for more than half of the one million international students enrolled at American colleges in 2017-18. About 1 percent (13,270) came from Nepal.
Still, that was a record high, an increase of 14 percent over the previous year. That followed a 20-percent jump the year before. Nepal has a fast-growing youth population, and American recruiters call the country a hot spot, a growth market.
But those descriptions gloss over complexity. Yes, plenty of high-achieving students, from English-speaking schools, lived in the Kathmandu Valley. Yet Nepal remains one of the least developed countries in Asia, with large-scale poverty. Its per capita income reached $1,000 for the first time last year. By one estimate, as much as a quarter of the Nepali work force is overseas, and many workers send money back home to their families.
Political instability has hindered economic development. Two catastrophic earthquakes in 2015 killed more than 8,600 people and devastated the country’s infrastructure. Though Nepal’s middle class is growing, its purchasing power often isn’t enough to swing the cost of an American degree. Some families sell ancestral land to make it work; others borrow if they can. Many can’t.
As Selena surveyed the crowd, she saw faces full of ambition, faces full of worry. She knew that many Nepali students feel a heavy push from their parents, a push to get to the United States by way of an application process few families understand. That push often comes with unrealistic expectations about costs. So she describes them plainly.
The prospective applicants here seemed to know that international students in the United States aren’t eligible for federal aid. They understood that a student visa would allow them to work only on campus, no more than 20 hours a week. But when Selena explained that a movie ticket, popcorn, and a Coke might cost $20 in an American theater — about five times more than at some theaters here — a few spectators gasped.
“That’s reality,” said Selena. “So, is there any good news?”
“You can get scholarships,” one young woman said.
Selena nodded. “What’s the bad news?”
“Not everyone is going to get one.”
Can’t get something you need? Find a way to make do. That’s the Nepali way.
Living in the chaotic capital requires a gritty kind of resourcefulness. When hospitals ran out of blood after the earthquakes, relatives of patients scheduled for surgery had to find donors themselves. Most locals can’t afford cars, so families of four cram themselves onto scooters built for two. On crumbling side streets, people lay boards over yawning potholes that no one’s ever coming to fix. Teenagers without money for paperbacks find free versions of novels online and read every word on their phones.
Then there was Pratima, who had learned to fend for herself. Her parents split up when she was 10. Then she shared a one-room apartment with her father, a carpenter who drank too much and didn’t always come home. Each day she cooked her own rice and curry.
After two years, she moved in with her mother, who, months later, left for India with her second husband, seeking a better life. But first she checked Pratima into a girls’ hostel in Kathmandu, so that her schooling could continue here. She was 13, the hostel’s youngest occupant. Homesick, she would hear a sound in the hall and think, That’s my mom coming back. Before long, she stopped thinking it.
She turned 14. 15. 16. Roommates moved in, roommates moved out. She stayed.
A scholarship from a nonprofit group for disadvantaged girls paid for her education at a small private school, where she got good marks. When she was in 11th grade, her mother, who was raising Pratima’s two younger sisters in India, could no longer afford to send money for the hostel fee. So Pratima started tutoring a younger student in the evenings, earning $40 a month. That, plus another small scholarship, covered the cost of her room. After completing high school last spring, she took on another pupil. For the first time, she had a little extra money of her own.
She used it to pay for dance classes. Six days a week, she got up early and walked to a studio where hip-hop beats took over her limbs. For that hour, she felt weightless. She didn’t think about her family or scholarships or the Common Application essay.
That essay … a mountain in her mind, always there, waiting. What would she even write about?
Many Nepali applicants find personal essays daunting. Most schools emphasize memorization — not self-reflection. For some students in this communal society, there’s a cultural barrier, too. “It’s this Nepali mentality: Always say we,” one local college adviser said, “never say I.” Most essay prompts used by American colleges demand essays that are all about I.
For Pratima, writing didn’t come easily like math, her favorite subject. When solving equations, she felt energy surge through her. English? She spoke it cautiously yet clearly. But her vocabulary, she thought, wasn’t big enough. And she worried about expressing herself in 650 words that would shape admissions officers’ impressions.
Even so, many days she felt hopeful. She drew strength from a club whose members had stories like her own. They met once a week inside the small white building on Pashupati Road, a place where those with very little could, just maybe, find their way to another land, another life.
Prayer wheels surround Swayambhunath Stupa, known to tourists as the Monkey Temple.
On the long path to American colleges, just about every foreign applicant needs guidance. Many get little or none.
Sure, students at a handful of Nepal’s expensive private schools have college advisers to steer them through the confusing international admissions process. In most schools, though, college counselors don’t exist. So applicants often write their own letters of recommendation and have a teacher sign them. They figure out how to register for exams without access to credit cards. And they chase the answers to 100 questions by themselves.
Or find help elsewhere. Each year, teenagers from all over Nepal trek to Kathmandu on cramped buses to visit the EducationUSA Advising Center, which welcomes 200 visitors a day. Some Nepalis stay in the city for weeks or months while preparing to apply.
Tucked behind a security gate, the center is a way station stocked with college guidebooks. There’s no talking in the cozy library, where you can pluck a test-prep manual from the shelves and spend all day with it, no charge. The center offers free sessions on using the Common App, communicating effectively with admissions officers, and so on. Recruiters from American campuses often visit to give presentations — the only chance most prospective applicants get to have a face-to-face chat with an admissions officer.
For Ang Sonam Sherpa, the center was a second home. Sharp-chinned and well-spoken, he lived with his grandparents on the outskirts of the city. He slept in the prayer room surrounded by images of the Buddha. Most mornings, he took a bus to the center. The hourlong ride on torn-up roads was too bumpy for reading, so he spent the time thinking instead. He thought about TED Talks he had watched, by famous neuroscientists and psychologists. He tried to structure his reflections. What did this mean? What were they trying to tell me?
Ang, who excelled at debate in high school, had been one of nearly 300 applicants to the Opportunity Funds Program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. He and Pratima were among the 14 selected, an honor that entitled them to extra help from the advising-center staff.
Each year the program supports a small cohort of high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. From June to December, they get extensive college advising, a 12-session writing course, and moral support. The funds cover the cost of each student’s admissions tests, application fees for up to 10 American colleges, and the CSS Profile, the form used to determine eligibility for institutional aid. Those without family in Kathmandu get stipends for a hostel.
Just to be clear: Opportunity Funds serves those who otherwise couldn’t afford to even apply to U.S. colleges. Though the program has helped many get to the States with adequate scholarships, it doesn’t guarantee anything.
On a Friday afternoon, Ang, Pratima, and the rest of the students came to the advising center for the group’s weekly meeting. In the library, beneath a rainbow of college pennants, everyone gathered around a long wooden table. Ang, whose wristwatch slid up and down his slender arm, described the heavy cart of expectations many college applicants drag behind them.
“There’s a narrative in our society that if you study in the U.S., you will have a better life,” said Ang. “That is true in many senses: You will never live a life of poverty, your future will be set, you will have a middle-class job in Nepal. Parents feel that if their children go to the U.S., their lives will improve massively, too. So there’s this pressure to go.”
Many of Ang’s peers nodded. He paused for a moment, thinking.
“The problem with this narrative of everything being better outside Nepal,” he said, “is that it creates fear in parents’ minds: If my children don’t go to the U.S. for college, we will not live a happy life. The fact that almost everybody thinks this provides fuel for an industry that really should not be there. An industry that plays to fear.”
Wherever there’s a vacuum, something will fill it. In a country starved for college advising, educational consultancies abound.
Let’s take a walk down the bustling street called Putalisadak. The sight of all the competing firms there will blast your eyeballs. On one block, educational consultancies occupy each floor of a big building plastered with signs for Heritage International Education. The Red EduHouse. Dreamland. Nearby, Nirvana beckons.
Want to apply to universities in Australia, Canada, Europe, or the States? Want to prep for the SAT, GRE, or GMAT? Need to get a student visa? These companies will help, for a fee. Some charge $100 to $200 for a package of services that might include visa counseling and document processing.
Nepal has a love-hate relationship with this industry. “Do not use visa or educational consultancies,” the U.S. Embassy warns in a handout. “They exist to make money from you, not help you.” But the field is thriving.
Some of the businesses are reliable, according to local educators. Others are fly-by-night operations, with employees who lack certification, who know little, if anything, about counseling students or the ins and outs of international admissions. All the firms compete with Alfa Beta, a long-established giant with plush facilities, a sharp website, and a colorful marketing campaign.
The companies project an air of prestige. We’ll get you in. We’ll get you a scholarship. Such promises are often stated or strongly implied. Many firms have financial agreements with American colleges, and they strongly recommend those colleges to customers. When an applicant enrolls at one of the institutions, the firm gets a fee. It’s not illegal. It’s not prohibited by the membership associations whose ethical guidelines govern the international admissions process. But it’s not, by any stretch, college counseling.
At its worst, the industry puts students into perilous situations. Five years ago, consultancies in Kathmandu sent about 300 students to an unlicensed college in Malaysia, where they were supposed to earn money while getting a hospitality degree that would get them a job on cruise ships. Many ended up working long hours in hotel kitchens for little pay, and some were left with expired visas and no way to get home.
A half-dozen Nepali students who had been to consultancies shared their frustrations with The Chronicle. Many said they had been charged for questionable services, like “help” creating a Common Application account, which anyone can do at no cost.
Some agencies will falsify financial documents to make it look like students have more money than they do, which can help them get into an American college. One young man whose family had no savings at all paid a consultancy a couple of hundred dollars to produce documents stating that his parents had nearly $40,000 in the bank.
Consultancies can be aggressive. Employees will hang around outside testing centers. They will call students on their cellphones again and again. Look closely, and you’ll find that different firms use the photographs of the same beaming students, the same satisfied customers, in their promotional materials. One firm has been known to double its prices and then tout a half-off sale.
“There’s a narrative in our society that if you study in the U.S., you will have a better life.”
Despite all that, Nepalis go to consultancies, eagerly, day after day, week after week. One October morning, several young men lined up outside a firm on Putalisadak at 7 a.m.; they wanted to get to Kazakhstan or New Zealand or anywhere, really. They just wanted a ticket out of Nepal.
For many customers, that’s what a student visa is — a viable way to get to an affluent country where they could earn money. Some don’t care so much about studying; they just want help getting overseas. Others, though, are serious students, full of ambition.
For all of them, the industry’s appeal is no mystery. This is a culture where, like many others, people tend to think a service is no good unless you pay for it. If nothing else, these businesses peddle something powerful: reassurance. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything. That’s a lot for any anxious teenager to turn away from.
Shronim Tiwari has heard the call of American higher education. He has heard the powerful message that many colleges — marketing like mad, recruiting far and wide — send to an ever-listening planet. A message about their wondrous offerings, like hands-on learning and research opportunities, elective courses and extracurricular activities. Generally, these were experiences that Nepali colleges couldn’t offer undergraduate students.
The message echoes around the globe, amplified by Hollywood movies that portray American campuses as places of possibility (two decades later, Good Will Hunting, the story of genius discovered in a humble protagonist, still resonates in Nepal). Those narratives stoke the ambitions of smart, curious teenagers who found their own country’s colleges lacking.
Shronim was one of them. On a warm Thursday afternoon, he wore thick black glasses and an inquisitive expression while strolling through Kathmandu. The air was thick with car exhaust and incense. He walked arm in arm with a good friend who had just secured a full ride from the University of Rochester. Shronim hoped that he, too, would get one soon. His parents earned about $450 a month.
That day, the city hummed with celebration. Dashain had begun. Throughout the city, elders applied tika, a red mark, to young people’s foreheads. That ritual often includes a familiar blessing: Become a doctor, become an engineer. But those professions, revered beyond all others in Nepal, didn’t appeal to Shronim at all.
Growing up in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu, he liked looking up at the night sky and thinking about how life began. He read A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. He devoured a recent TV series called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He fell in love with the stars, with astronomy, a major that colleges in Nepal don’t offer.
During his senior year in high school, Shronim started reading about American campuses. He wanted to explore various subjects; here, college students studied their chosen major and, generally, that was it. If you stay here, a friend told him, you won’t reach your full potential.
After completing high school, in 2017, Shronim took an informal course taught by a student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Nepali who was home for the summer. The group met twice a week, getting lessons in computer science and electrical engineering. Shronim learned how to program. He built microcontrollers. When he got confused, he asked for help … and got it.
The experience floored him. It was nothing like high school, which had emphasized memorization. He had read and read and read, taking test after test after test. Lectures were the rule.
Once he had a taste for what classes in the United States could be like, he decided to apply. Inspired, he wrote up a daily schedule and taped it to his bedroom wall. Wake Up: 5 a.m. Bed Time: 10 p.m. In between, he spent six hours studying for the SAT, three and a half hours reading books, and another hour studying astronomy. He did all that while caring for his disabled parents.
If he hadn’t fallen for American colleges, he wouldn’t have participated in the National Astronomy Olympiad, where last summer he was chosen as the competition’s overall winner. He wouldn’t have built a telescope or a sundial. And he wouldn’t have been chosen to represent Nepal at the 2018 International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics, in China.
A few weeks before leaving for that trip, Shronim vibrated with nervous energy. He gushed about the University of Chicago, but fretted that he would never get in. Soon he would send applications to 15 colleges, wondering all along if those were the right ones. He had no help. He couldn’t have afforded to go to a consultancy even if he had wanted to.
Nothing, he kept thinking, is certain.
One night, Shronim got the chance to look through a high-powered telescope at the Nepal Astronomical Society, in Kathmandu. When he first saw the bright and cratered moon, he felt like he was standing on it.
But the United States and its storied colleges seemed impossibly far away to him, just as they did to many other applicants, like the determined young woman in Kathmandu who loved to dance.
Disappointment. Joy. Anxiety. Pratima tasted them all as the fall went on. Time sped up, hurtling her toward the January 1 application deadline.
Sometimes, she just wanted to do nothing. She just wanted to lie down on the metal bed in her tiny room and stare at the walls, bare except for a few photos of family and friends, and a silvery-green peacock feather, a souvenir honoring Krishna, the deity who wears one in his crown.
Someone to tell you when to study, what to do next. She had lacked that comfort. Her mother and stepfather still lived in India, working low-paying jobs.
Each day, Pratima called or messaged with her mother on Facebook. You make me proud, she told Pratima. We are always with you. Yet they were far away, and she was still here, after nearly six years, in a big hostel that wasn’t so clean.
Her low moments didn’t last, though. She had many reasons to push herself. She thought of Dolakha, the hilly, rural area where her mother came from, where her relatives still lived. It was the epicenter of the second 2015 earthquake, which toppled her grandparents’ house. Just about everyone there was poor, and most were illiterate.
Pratima thought of the girls from Dolakha who were pregnant at 16, or married, or both. And she thought of her two younger sisters, whom she hoped to inspire by reaching the States and becoming the first in her family to go to college. I need to make a happy ending, she told herself.
Many mornings, Pratima played motivational speeches and music on her phone to fill herself with good energy. One of her favorite songs was “Scars to Your Beautiful,” by Alessia Cara. “There’s a hope,” the chorus began, “that’s waiting for you in the dark.”
But her hope faded the day her TOEFL score came. When she saw the two-digit number, she winced.
Most American colleges require the Test of English as a Foreign Language. It measures proficiency in reading, speaking, listening, and writing. For many non-native English speakers, it’s damn hard.
Pratima got an 85 out of a possible 120. Many selective colleges require a score of 100.
Later, at the EducationUSA center, she sought out Selena, the educational adviser.
I really ruined my exam, she said, crying.
Selena reassured her. It’s not the end of the world.
Selena knew Pratima might not be able to apply to some of the colleges she had her eye on. She encouraged her to consider taking the exam again, to double-check each institution’s requirements. Some waive the TOEFL minimum for applicants with high scores on the SAT’s reading and writing section. Though Pratima didn’t crack 650 on it the first time, she knew she would have another chance.
After her chat with Selena, Pratima had a heart-to-heart with Astha Chand, the center’s information officer, whom she thought of as a sister. Astha encouraged her to broaden her list of colleges. And when Pratima cried for the second time that day, Astha gave her water and a hug.
In early November, Pratima turned 18. She celebrated with friends who lived at the hostel. They decorated her room with balloons and a sign. A friend from school gave her a Bluetooth speaker.
That month, Pratima took a handful of SAT Subject Tests and the Duolingo English Test, a new exam, on which she fared relatively well. She took the SAT again in December; her score, which she described as fine, but not great, didn’t go up.
Day after day, she read up on prospective colleges. She saw many photographs of green American quads, and she could picture herself strolling across all of them. But a question kept circling in her mind. What if she ended up going nowhere at all?
Pratima had always felt OK about her English. But her test scores made her doubt her skills — skills she must use to write her application essay. She kept switching topics in her head.
Late one night, Pratima sat at her desk and opened her laptop. An hour passed, and she didn’t type a single sentence. The blank white screen stared back at her, hungry for words.
Find a way to make do. That’s the Nepali way. But resourcefulness has its limits. The deck is stacked against low-income students hoping to reach the States. Without enough aid, with no way to borrow, you can’t make do. You probably won’t even get the chance.
All but a handful of American colleges consider international applicants’ ability to pay. Generally, the more money they need, the harder it is for them to get an acceptance. Those applying for aid must complete the CSS Profile or an international aid form. Many colleges also ask for financial documentation that includes a bank statement.
Yes, international students can get full-tuition scholarships at some American colleges — but rarely full scholarships covering tuition, room, board, and fees. Before considering an applicant for admission, many institutions require them to show that their family has a specific amount of money — say, $25,000 — in the bank. And many require the same before issuing an I-20 form certifying an accepted applicant’s eligibility for a student visa.
American colleges love to tout their global reach, listing the many nations they draw students from. But they rain more opportunities down on some countries than others. Yes, colleges want international diversity and its many intangible benefits, but most want (and need) more tuition revenue, too. Chinese students’ ability to pay all or most of the freight has long been part of their immense appeal to Western colleges.
Let’s look at some of the most popular destinations for international students. In 2017-18, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enrolled 5,121 undergraduate students from other countries, more than almost any other American institution, according to the Common Data Set. Yet just 28 — or 0.5 percent — of them received any institutional aid, an average of $4,566. Pennsylvania State University’s main campus enrolled 4,692; none got aid.
Generally, private colleges give more money than publics, but their awards are limited. The University of Southern California, for instance, enrolled 2,523 degree-seeking undergraduates from other countries in 2017-18. Less than a fifth of them got aid, with an average award of $19,392. Its annual cost of attendance was more than $70,000.
Boston University enrolled 3,631 international degree-seeking undergraduates. Its average award was $34,960, a good chunk of its cost of attendance, more than $70,000 a year. But just 199 of those students got any aid.
Admissions officers recruiting in Nepal know that they can drum up plenty of applications there. But most often, their institutions aren’t pursuing a high-volume strategy when it comes to enrolling those applicants. They’re just trying, in the words of one former recruiter, “to find that one gem.”
Many Nepali students long to be that gem. They understand that very few American colleges can offer them need-based aid. And they all know that the colleges with the most money to give are also the hardest to get into.
Even a golden ticket comes with hidden costs. One young man in Kathmandu whose family earned less than $10,000 a year rejoiced after getting a full ride to a private college on the East Coast, only to learn that he had to pay a $500 deposit. And that he was expected to budget at least $4,000 for a visa, transportation, books, supplies, a cellphone plan, and the processing fee charged by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He had to scramble to find a relative who could pay the deposit. The rest? A mystery he would have to solve.
A handful of students in the Opportunity Funds program planned to apply to Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, which is relatively generous with aid for international students. Those receiving aid get $53,000 a year, on average.
But Lafayette has only so much money to spread around the globe. Last year, 2,150 students from 133 countries applied there, and most of them also applied for aid. The college had about 50 full-need awards to give.
Here’s how that worked out in the end for just one country on the far side of the world. Lafayette received applications from 155 Nepalis, and it offered a full ride to each of the students it accepted.
That’s the math of international admissions.
Birds gather on the roofs of temples in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.
The gold-tipped spires of the city’s temples take people’s breath away. Each day, tourists come to Durbar Square to gape at antiquity and snap photographs. Of Hindu holy men wearing bright orange. Of dust-covered dogs napping in the street. Look, there’s the shrine to Kali, the goddess of destruction. Westerners can’t get enough of Nepal.
But many Nepalis want to leave their country, often for good. Yes, the middle class is growing, as evidenced by the teenagers lining up outside Miniso, a popular chain store that sells plush stuffies and sweet-pea-and-jasmine candles and other cheap trinkets. But the economy isn’t growing fast enough to help plenty of young people who see studying abroad as their best chance, if not their only chance, to thrive.
Australia is the most popular destination for Nepali students, followed by Japan. Many who enroll at colleges in those countries work part-time, as cashiers, waiters, and Uber drivers. It’s relatively easy to get a student visa to either destination — and to find jobs once they get there.
Those hoping to reach the States encounter more difficulty. For one thing, getting an F-1 student visa requires fortitude.
It’s not uncommon for Nepali students to enroll at American colleges, only to transfer to a more affordable college after a semester or two. Or they drop out and work illegally, often staying in the country for good. The visa process is designed to prevent that, but, like any bureaucratic system, it’s imperfect. Sometimes, applicants who are serious about studying in the States get rejected for reasons that seem arbitrary.
Bipin Adhikari, tall and matter-of-fact, had high hopes. After finishing high school, in 2017, he spent months seeking affordable options in the States. Last year, he got an acceptance from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Last spring, Bipin went to the U.S. Embassy for his long-scheduled visa interview, a source of great anxiety for teenagers in Nepal. Many trade interview advice on an active Facebook group, recounting their experiences in vivid detail. Say the wrong thing, and you’re toast. And you won’t get your $160 application fee back.
Bipin was nervous. After walking into the high-security embassy, he sat for a while in the waiting room, clutching an I-20 form confirming his acceptance at UT-Arlington. When his name was called, he and nine other students went to another room for fingerprint scans.
Then came the one-on-one interview with a visa officer stationed behind bulletproof glass. Like every applicant, Bipin had to prove three things. That he intended to be a student. That he intended to return to Nepal after graduating. And that he had sufficient funds to cover his education.
In other countries, applicants must provide documentation of their finances. But amid concerns about the prevalence of fraudulent documents in Nepal, the U.S. Embassy recently nixed that requirement. That puts more weight on applicants during the interview, which typically lasts just a minute or two.
Say the wrong thing, and you’re toast. And you won’t get your $160 application fee back.
After the visa officer interrupted him, Bipin lost confidence. He fumbled for words in English, his second language. The officer seemed to doubt his qualifications to major in physics, and told him his answers were too long-winded. A moment later, he got the dreaded yellow sheet: His application was denied for failure to prove his intent to be a student.
Two months later, Bipin returned for another interview. Anxious, he looked around and saw that no other applicants were wearing a tie. So he quickly removed his own.
He had received an acceptance from Southern Arkansas University, where he would have an annual gap of just $1,000. This time, he made sure not to over-explain.
But the visa officer told him his answers had been too brief. He got another yellow sheet. The reason: insufficient funds.
All told, Bipin had spent about $1,000 applying to two American colleges, including fees for the SAT, TOEFL, and test-prep courses, plus two rounds of college-application and visa-application fees. That’s about what he would have paid each year at Southern Arkansas.
As the fall wore on, Bipin waited to hear about his latest visa application, to Canada. He had been accepted by yet another college.
He still thought about the States, though. His two visa rejections had blanketed him with a bad feeling he just couldn’t shake off.
For many applicants, the long, winding path to American colleges is a dead end.
Sometimes, help comes in an unexpected form. You just have to recognize it.
In November, Pratima found the inspiration she needed when she read Milk and Honey, a best-selling book of poems, prose, and drawings by Rupi Kaur. As a child, the Indian-born author immigrated with her parents to Canada. English was her second language, too.
Page after page, Pratima was struck by Kaur’s spare writing. Beautiful, she thought. No big words, no long sentences. And yet the book moved her.
Pratima saw a lesson there, one she could use right away. Feeling a spark of confidence, she began to type a draft of her Common App essay. The words would be small, but powerful. Hope carried her through seven days of writing and revising. Finally, it was done.
In 647 words, Pratima told her story. She explained how growing up on her own made her self-reliant. She described how living with an ever-changing cast of roommates taught her that each person is unique and important, that everyone, in some way, has endured hard times. “One’s life,” she wrote, “can’t be compared with another’s life.”
December dissolved into January. One round of deadlines passed, and then another. Exhausted, Pratima submitted the last of her applications on the 15th. Altogether, she applied to 18 colleges.
As soon as everything was done, her anxiety spiked. What if I end up going nowhere at all? What if …
Still, Pratima felt a sense of accomplishment. She had thrown herself into a mysterious process and completed every task. She had looked doubt in the eye and affirmed who she was, who she wanted to be. All that called for celebration.
Pratima and her friends at the hostel supported each other. Whenever one of them had something to celebrate — a birthday, some small success — everyone got together and danced.
After dinner the next night, a half-dozen young women gathered in a first-floor bedroom. Pratima turned on her new Bluetooth speaker, and sound came pouring out. Nepali songs, Hindi songs. Everyone whirled on the green carpet, laughing and singing.
That night, Pratima shook free from worry. She didn’t think about college or scholarships. She didn’t think about all the reasons her heart tilted west. That night, she just danced and danced and danced.