A full-ride scholarship winner; accepted to multiple Ivy Leagues; acquired her first nursing license at 16; a Micron Foundation Scholar; an Alzheimer’s research assistant. The list goes on.
To understand Apshara’s story and how far she has come, you have to look back beyond her time, to her parents’ and grandparents’ lives.
Long ago, Nepali farmers were sent to the southern regions of Bhutan to help transform the jungle into an agricultural and farming hotspot. The Nepalese royal family sent (or sold – accounts differ) farmers and, after several years, the southern jungles became the main business center for the mountainous kingdom.
Through their hard work, Nepali people in Bhutan became more successful, amassing wealth and power. They established Sanskrit schools for their children, dressing in Nepalese attire, and integrating their cultural heritage into their new lives in Bhutan. Apshara’s ancestors had huge tracts of land and became wealthy from it.
“My great-grandfather and my grandfather were granted citizenship, and so my mom and dad were born citizens of Bhutan, and they forfeited their Nepali citizenship. As far as your eyes could see from a big hill, that is how much land we had. We were rich. But then the monarchy forced us to give up our citizenships.”
The monarchy became worried about the Nepali people amassing too much power and eventually usurping him. Over time, the situation devolved into xenophobic and religious persecution and then genocide.
Tens of thousands of people were massacred, and over 100,000 fled the country and became refugees. Apshara’s grandfather was an adult at this time and had 10 children, and one of them, Apshara’s mom, was around 10 years old at the time.
“They were told to go back to our country,” Apshara says. Because of the mountainous topography of the region, and the intricate way the borders of India, Nepal, and Bhutan meet, refugees had to cross that part of India on foot, trying to make their way back to Nepal.
“A lot of people in my descent are still there in India, stuck, because the border officers wouldn’t let them cross into Nepal.”
“Thankfully, my family managed to sneak into Nepal without splitting apart. A lot of people figured out how to do that,” Apshara says.
Through a leader, the refugees asked the authorities for shelter and a place in the country, underscoring their Nepali ethnicity. The monarchy was sympathetic, but declined to help, citing that the Nepali farmers had left for Bhutan long ago.
“‘You are no longer our responsibility’, was what he said,” Apshara says.
Eventually, the UN tried to negotiate peace between the countries and encouraged either of them to step up and claim the refugees as their own and take them in.
“Bhutan said ‘They’re just Nepali people making up this excuse that they’re Bhutanese. We never kicked anybody out,’” Apshara says.
Finally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees aided in setting up refugee camps in eastern Nepal, in the Jhapa district. Over time, the UN-aided services got scaled down and abandoned and the refugees were in large part left to run their own camps.
Apshara Siwakoti is an alumna of Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado and she can point to an astounding resume.
Her remarkable drive and success are tightly interwoven with her upbringing in a Nepalese refugee camp, which in many ways fortified her will to succeed.
The 20-year-old senior at the University of Denver is about to graduate this summer, majoring in molecular biology with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience, two subjects you can’t exactly coast through with minimal effort. But hard work isn’t all that scary when you love what you study and live happily and safely.
“I don’t know why I have this drive inside of me, but I always wanted more. I didn’t know what more was when I was in the refugee camp, but that’s what I knew,” says Apshara.
“It’s also my mother’s teachings and how she ingrained education. She got married when she was 16, she didn’t get the chance to be educated, and she told me, ‘You have to be the most educated person in this family.”
With graduation just weeks away, Apshara is looking forward to taking a short break over the summer before diving into yet more school.
To understand Apshara’s work ethic, you need to understand her backstory and the circumstances of her upbringing. Having been born onto a plastic bag on the dirt floor of a bamboo hut in a refugee camp, to a mom who always pushed her to do well in school, Apshara came into a world where education was one of few opportunities available to her to improve her lot in life.
“I KNEW BEING A GOOD STUDENT WOULD BE MY TICKET OUT”
She describes her upbringing as chaotic.
“I think my mother emphasized education a lot, and almost forced me to be a role model in the community. I would look around and there was just chaos everywhere. There was at least one person with disabilities in every household, there were so many mental issues, so much gender-related violence, fathers of the house neglecting their families because of alcohol, all the time,” Apshara says.
Despite the difficult circumstances and unpredictability of everyday life, Apshara still excelled in school, consistently getting the highest grades.
“I loved school. I was always the Topper, the one with the highest GPA! I wanted to be the best every single time,” Apshara says.
With her mother’s encouragement to do well in school, Apshara worked hard, driven by a persistent feeling.
“I just knew something was missing and I was always working towards it. I could see that we were living in poverty. It was sad. We would only eat meat once a month and would just rely on beans. But I said to myself ‘That doesn’t seem healthy’ because our education system was based off of the British curriculum, and in the books you could read about people eating meat all the time.”
Sitting on a straw mat in the classroom with her notebook, Apshara knew that being a good student would be her ticket out.
In 2011, Apshara and her family left Nepal. A lengthy refugee relocation process, organized by the UNHCR International Office of Migration that begun in 2007, brought her family to Massachusetts. Her maternal grandparents had arrived state-side first, but her own relocation process got delayed due to the size of her father’s family. Australia, Canada, and some European countries were also offered as options, but their first pick was the US.
Before leaving Nepal they spent two weeks in a transitional camp in Kathmandu. Staff went through their belongings to make sure they did not bring anything the TSA would have to throw out. Someone had to be a group leader for the trip as most people had never flown on an airplane before. Almost none of them spoke English. They were also taught airplane etiquette.
On the flight to the US, Apshara was scared, thinking the airplane crew wanted to take her away from her mom.
“My mom looks very brown, and my dad’s side of the family is very fair-skinned and looks more European. So as a kid, I had blonde hair and very fair skin, and I’m sitting next to a brown lady and the airplane crew said things like ‘Are you lost? Do you need to go to your mom?’”
Passing through customs, Apshara gripped her mom tightly, staying by her side the whole time.
Apshara Siwakoti, 20, is about to graduate from the University of Denver with a degree in molecular biology and a concentration in cognitive neuroscience.
“THESE PEOPLE WERE PUT IN MY LIFE TO GUIDE ME”
Finally, after transiting through New York and Boston, they ended up in Lowell, MA, about an hour’s drive north of Boston. They lived there for almost eight months.
“I was only nine when I came to America but I became stronger. I realized, as a child, I actually have a voice here,” Apshara says.
She began taking on responsibility for herself, her little brother, and even her mom. Her passion for learning carried her through school. The British English she had studied in school in the camp morphed into a full grasp of American English by eighth grade. Her grades were good, and her confidence was high.
Apshara’s introduction to Boys Hope Girls Hope happened through her volunteering. The volunteer coordinator at an elementary school where Apshara taught Nepali and English to kids, shared an office with Ryan Widemon, the former Program Director for Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado. Widemon contacted Apshara and asked if she wanted to be a part of the program.
“Because [Widemon] talked to her, I think it’s a sign,” Apshara says with a laugh. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was just thought ‘It’s a sign, I’m doing it.’”
Because of the responsibility she had put on herself to help her mom and little brother, Apshara felt that she needed a little help herself. She got to see what Boys Hope Girls Hope is all about when she entered ninth grade.
“I got to see the whole program for what it is and I thought ‘Oh my god, these are the people that are going to guide me.’ I’ve been having to guide my mom through everything. She is not going to have a clue about what college is like, she’s not going to tell me what classes to take in high school. She barely speaks English. So these people were put in my life to guide me. That is what happened.”
After ninth grade, Apshara’s scores on the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test were higher than all of the seniors’ test scores at her school. Boys Hope Girls Hope asked Apshara’s mom if she wanted her daughter to transfer to a better school. Her mom didn’t fully understand what that entailed, but she understood what “better” meant.
“She said, ‘If it is too easy for her, yeah, I want her to move,'” Apshara says.
Apshara’s mom used what little savings she had and bought a small house in Aurora, just southeast of Denver near Grandview High School, and relocated their family, taking a chance on the promise of a better education for her two children.
“I was only nine when I came to America but I became stronger. I realized, as a child, I actually have a voice here.”
Team members at Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado would pick her up right after school and take her to their residential program, where she would stay until 10 pm. Her mom would pick her up after finishing her late shifts at work. For Apshara, this schedule worked out quite well.
“I was doing a million things in high school! I was playing the violin, I was flying airplanes, I was longboarding. I did a lot of things!,” Apshara says.
“Boys Hope Girls Hope counselors loved driving me around to everything. ‘Is Apshara gonna come? She must have something to do today. I’m bored.’ They were literally waiting for me,” she says with a laugh.
Growing up, Apshara was implored by her mom to go into medicine or law. Perhaps due to youthful rebellion, Apshara refused to go into medicine initially, but eventually realized her mom was on to something, and that it was her passion. She got her Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) license when she was 16, then began studying for the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) exam soon after.
Eventually, Apshara found herself in pre-med at the University of Denver. Now she is on the precipice of graduating with a degree in molecular biology and a concentration in cognitive neuroscience.
One might wonder how anyone deals with this amount of work, let alone a 20-year-old. Apshara says it came naturally to her thanks to her upbringing.
“I think my mindset has been affected by the refugee camps so much. I’ve heard so many stories of my ancestors. When I’m feeling demotivated, I think ‘Yes, I can take a break, I can procrastinate a little bit.’ But eventually, this work needs to get done because my ancestors did not die in vain, they did not get massacred in vain,” Apshara says.
She continues: “I told my friend one time I was scared for this organic chemistry test and I could not motivate myself to study for it at all. And then I thought ‘My ancestors’ bones are spread all over India and I can’t study nomenclature?’ and that got me going. I know that’s dark but I was put here for a purpose.”
Although Apshara sees her path laid out in front of her now, it wasn’t always like that.
At the end of high school, Apshara became more cynical. She had applied to multiple scholarships and hadn’t heard back. She endured bullying from classmates who came from affluent families. It affected the way she thought about herself.
“I thought to myself ‘I’m just a girl from a refugee camp. I don’t belong here. I know nothing.’ I became very cynical. I had this imposter syndrome,” she says, reflecting on her time leading up to college.
One day, she heard back from one of the scholarships she had applied for. The Daniel’s Fund Scholarship had reviewed her application and wanted to offer her a full-ride scholarship at the University of Denver. At first, she thought they gave it to her merely “because I’m a refugee.”
“I thought ‘I don’t deserve it’.”
But then, as she progressed through DU, her thinking began to change.
“I started being passionate about doing things that I actually love. I do Alzheimer’s research now in a lab. And I love pre-med. I love working in the clinic with kids. I have more of a sense of myself now. I’m not as cynical. Everything is an opportunity now,” she says.
Apshara credits the team members at Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado with helping her get a sense of all the opportunities available to her, especially Emily Falkner, the Senior Manager of Post-Secondary Programs.
“She will send me a list of resources. She says things like ‘This will help pave your way. Go for it, ask the questions, go to office hours, reach out to that resource.’ So I’m very thankful for that.”
Martin Totland is the Communications and Media Associate at Boys Hope Girls Hope. He manages the Network’s social media channels, email marketing, video creation, blog, and internal communications. He also assists affiliates with social media tools, resources, and training.
With only three classes left to pass, Apshara is looking ahead to a Master’s program in public health with a focus on epidemiology. Then, eventually, she will apply to med school. She admits laughingly that it will be hard.
“But not as hard as going to sleep hungry or having your roof leak water into your house.”
Upon graduating, Apshara also plans on staying involved with her local Boys Hope Girls Hope affiliate as an alumnus, speaking on career panels and sitting on the board.
Apshara says that Kenneth Stable, another Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado alumnus and DU graduate, inspired her with his talks at their local affiliate.
“I looked forward to Kenneth’s statements. Somebody might be looking forward to mine. That might be their motivation. You never know!”