For Concord High’s Kharel, Gates Scholarship ‘proudest moment of my life’

Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2015
Ashish Kharel, a Bhutanese senior at Concord High School, prefaced what he was about to say with a smile.

“I mean, over 50,000 people? I didn’t know it was possible,” he said. “I have way more options now than I thought I’d have. It’s way overwhelming.”

He had just sized up a handmade sign taped in the hallway that read, “Congratulations to Ashish.”

Kharel was still processing his selection as a Gates Millennium Scholar, one of only 1,000 in the country. He was selected from a pool of 57,000 applicants and one of the most competitive years in the program’s history. The scholarship means the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will pick up the tab for whatever scholarships and financial aid won’t, and introduces Kharel to a national network of current and former scholars.

“I’m going to try not to cry today. I’m going to try to keep it together,” said Annamaria DiPasquale, a social worker at the school who penned six essays in support of Kharel’s application.

Kharel plans to study electromechanical engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

Until last weekend, he was likely headed to the University of New Hampshire, where he would pay out of pocket what scholarships and financial aid didn’t cover. In a state where students graduate with some of the highest levels of debt in the country, the cost weighed on Kharel. UNH has a strong engineering program, but Kharel wanted to enroll somewhere with a focus on the discipline. Cost – the only thing keeping him from those schools – is no longer a hurdle.

Now he can focus on regular stuff, like graduating high school.

“I’m a bit nervous. Well, not a bit – a lot. I think it’s a really big transition from high school to college,” he said.

Kharel’s options didn’t exist when his family lived in a refugee camp in Nepal, and surely weren’t around when the Kharels settled in Concord in 2008.

So, Kharel set about giving himself options.

A week after arriving in Concord he hopped on a city bus to the Concord Public Library and got a library card. This would help him learn English, he thought.

“He’s the only one in the Bhutanese community I’ve seen do that,” said Rup Timsina, a bicultural student liaison with Accentria Care Alliance.

It wasn’t an easy transition for Ashish, who barely spoke English and routinely skipped school lunch because he was unsure about the food. As his English got better, his role in the school grew.

“It’s such a huge scary transition when you don’t know the language, and he made it a point he was going to learn it,” DiPasquale said.

He is now an active member of the Be the Change Club and tutors other students after school. His peers say he’s a hard worker with stellar dance moves, which he might break out while hosting the school’s international night on May 20.

Kharel is quick to share his experiences as an ambassador to other new American students at the high school.

“New country. New culture. New language. New everything,” he said. “I don’t think there is a single thing you can connect to when you come from a really poor country, a refugee camp, to a country like this. It’s really hard, and I know what it’s like. That’s why I want to help them and make them feel welcome.”

It is the same courtesy extended to Kharel over the years by students like Ganesh Sharma, a Nepalese student, Gates Scholar and 2013 Concord high graduate. Kharel saw how the Gates award opened doors for Sharma to places like the University of Vermont, where Sharma is studying mechanical engineering. Kharel didn’t know much about Bill Gates in 2013, but set out for the scholarship.

“Now I’ve got it. It’s the proudest moment of my life,” he said.

Kharel plans to live on campus, a little more than a hour away from the home he shares with his father, Padam, his mother, Nar, and his two older sisters, Januka and Anita.

“It is sad he is going away from the house, but I am happy he is going for a good cause and to further his education,” Nar Kharel said, through Ashish as a translator.

He was studying last weekend when a package from the Gates Foundation arrived, Padam said. This wasn’t surprising.

“I come back home from work at midnight; he’s studying. I wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and he’s studying,” Padam Kharel said. “He’s a very hard worker.”

Anita, who is paying her own way through New England College, inspired Ashish to do the same.

Anita’s given her brother a few pieces of advice: Study hard, have fun and stay focused.

Anita, who will graduate from New England College this spring, paid her own way. This inspired Ashish to try to do the same.

As for his studies?

“He doesn’t need any help with school work,” she said, before breaking into a laugh.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm.)