Castleton University is a long way from the Nepalese refugee camp where Chandra Luitel was born and raised. At ten, Chandra was cooking for her family and taking care of her younger siblings. College and career seemed remote. “I had a passion to become a nurse,” she says. “But I knew my dream of going into a professional field was impossible because of my family’s financial situation.”
When Chandra was thirteen, her parents decided to move to the United States. They were taking a chance: they knew very little about the country and could not speak English. However, with robbery, violence, and poverty in the camp, the move seemed worth the risk.
But the family’s struggles did not end when they arrived in Winooski, Vermont. The Luitels knew no one in their new city. Chandra and her younger sister had learned a little English at school in Nepal, so they did their best to help their parents navigate this new world. “We were scared for a few months,” recalls Chandra. “But then we met other people from Nepal who encouraged us to stay – not that we could go back.”
At school, more culture shock awaited Chandra and her siblings. There was the pressure to buy clothes and fit in with peers. “In Nepal, we had only one uniform,” says Chandra. School lunches were also an adjustment as Chandra was accustomed to cooking food at home. And although Chandra had lots of questions about her new language, environment, and schoolwork, she did not ask many. “I was hesitant to ask for help,” she says.
In her junior year of high school, Chandra was introduced to the University of Vermont’s Upward Bound program, a federally funded program for high school students of modest means whose parents do not have a bachelor’s degree. Through workshops and college tours, Chandra learned that she could realize her dream of attending college and becoming a nurse. She applied and was accepted to Castleton’s nursing program.
In August 2015, Chandra came to campus a week before the start of her first semester. With about thirty other new students, she participated in the Summer Transition Program, a week-long program to help TRIO students acclimate to college life (STP).
Like many other first-year students, Chandra struggled with homesickness. “In my culture, we don’t move from home until we get married,” she says. “It was pretty challenging for my parents as well.”
Through STP, Chandra found ample support. She made friends with other homesick students. “We talked about it and realized it’s pretty normal,” she remembers. Academic Support Center staff were also reassuring, particularly Kelley Beckwith, Director of Academic Services. “Kelley was good to me,” says Chandra. “She shared how she felt when she left home for college and later realized it was all for the best.”
STP helped Chandra find her way around campus – and help her peers. “I was able to help other new students from Nepal find the Academic Support Center and other places on campus,” she says. She now encourages high school friends to apply to Castleton and participate in STP.
As Chandra threw herself into challenging coursework, she continued visiting Academic Support Center. Academic Counselor Becky Eno helped her register for classes and gave her pep talks when she doubted her ability to succeed at Castleton. Faced with writing assignments, she took her papers to the Writing Clinic. “Every semester, I think, oh, I’m going to fail these nursing courses,” she says. “But then I come to the Writing Clinic for help with writing and research.”
Today, it’s hard to believe Chandra ever wondered whether she could make it at Castleton. This semester, her mid-term GPA was a 4.00. Recently, she was awarded the Vermont Educational Opportunity Programs scholarship for overcoming significant obstacles to pursue her education. “Chandra has matured, become disciplined, and begun to see the world as a nurse, one who is responsible for the well-being of others,” says her advisor, Assistant Professor of Nursing Margaret Young. After graduation, Chandra plans a career in pediatric or geriatric nursing.
But despite Chandra’s accomplishments, some things haven’t changed. She still puts her family first, returning home almost every weekend to help her mother. “I read the mail my mom cannot read and pay the bills,” she says. Since her mother is often tired from working double shifts, Chandra gives her a break by cooking for the family and taking her teenage brother to sporting events.
Chandra hopes other students will learn from her story, particularly those who are reluctant to attend college because they fear homesickness or debt. “Push yourself,” she says. “We all have doubts, but life will be better. Ask for help. And don’t be afraid of the financial stuff – there is aid available, including lots of scholarships at Castleton.”
-Dorothy A. Dahm