Rows of chairs faced the teller windows ominously as if the people waiting were spectators at a sports game. The people crowded in the chairs practiced their monologues under their breath, rocked back and forth nervously and shook their legs in agitation. It dawned on me that I was the only person who looked even vaguely relaxed. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would never get a visa anyway so why worry about it. A man behind the desk belted “Saurav Bhandary.” I walked up to the official behind the glass and explained that I had been given the scholarship to join the class of 2012 at Atlanta International School (AIS) for the following year, and would I like apply for a visa for America. He didn’t interrupt me while I spoke and when I finished he said, “okay” and handed me the paperwork. “WHAT!” I was in disbelief. Only five of nearly 300 people a day actually get visas. And just like that my life changed forever.
I was born and raised in Nepal. I grew up in a large family, with an older sister, younger sister, mother, father and a very involved extended family. My parents who lived in the south of Nepal were farmers and had land near the Chitwan National Park, which was the first national park established in Nepal. Most land in southern Nepal is very fertile and devoted to agriculture. The landscape is filled with different colors throughout the year; corn in the summer, golden rice in the fall, blooming yellow mustard in the winter, and different sorts of vegetables sporadically in between. Civil war broke out in Nepal in 1996, however intense fighting and civic unrest continued well into 2006. Ten years of civil war in Nepal took well over 15,000 lives and I grew up right in the middle of it. I became accustomed to the fact that I always needed to worry about the danger lurking around every corner. Schools were closed all the time which as a child wasn’t all that bad news at the beginning, but it got old fast. Some schools were closed for days, months, sometimes even years. My parents decided that my sisters and I would have to move to Kathmandu if we were going to have a proper education. So off we went, moving seven hours away to live with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. My parents were active members of a nonprofit organization and when Mrs. Shanta, a former teacher at AIS, reached out to them to partner on building an International Baccalaureate (IB) school in Nepal, they offered her their help. Due to the instability of the country, the IB school didn’t work out but Mrs. Shanta encouraged my cousin and me to apply to AIS.
In August of 2010, I moved to Atlanta by myself, leaving behind my language, culture, and family. Ms. Shanta and her daughter Ms. Umi, a current teacher at AIS, became my host family. With a low English proficiency and a lot of adjusting to do, I joined AIS in the eleventh grade.
AIS introduced me to more than the English language, it introduced me to an entirely different way to learn: the IB curriculum. Through the IB I got to take classes I was very interested in at a high level. My favorite classes ended up being math and economics. 2010 was a good year to join the school, economics was added as an option in the humanities department. However, when the class first started, I thought I had made a mistake. Maybe economics wasn’t for me. When I requested that my teacher, Mr. Holcomb, transfer me, he asked me to trust him and wait a bit longer. He thought if I gave it a chance I could come to love economics. He couldn’t have been more right! I actually ended up majoring in economics at college.
Alongside class work, the IB requires you to complete CAS hours (Creativity Activity and Service Hours) and familiar with the nonprofit work my parents did I felt comfortable with this task. I created a ping-pong society, aimed at bringing people together through sport. It was an incredible success and I made lots of friends through the group.
After graduating in 2012 from AIS I attended Birmingham Southern College where I began the process of bringing the Global Peace Exchange program to my school. At Florida State University they already had a successful chapter of the program so I set out creating a chapter for BSC. The idea sounded much simpler than it was; it was almost as time-consuming as getting another degree! I had to convince not only the students who would travel to Nepal, to give up their time, but also get the college on board with my plan. Getting students to give up an hour a week to do ping-pong was easy, the commitment level low and many of my peers signed up without questions. However, the commitment to travel to Nepal was huge, a whole summer. Eventually, though, we got all the organization in place and prepared for our first trip to Nepal in the summer of 2013.
This was the first time I had been home since leaving in 2010 to attend AIS. Going back to Nepal through the Global Peace Exchange Project was very much a personal journey. I had an opportunity to go back home along with my American friends and give back to the community that has given me so much. I didn’t truly realize how different I had become until I was back. I had a whole new perspective that my family and Nepalese friends didn’t have. On the other hand, I also had a different perspective than my American friends. Through this project, I watched both communities that I love become empathetic to each other’s worlds and learn about each other’s cultures. Some of the projects we worked on were teaching the local community English and about global warming, giving away more than 4,000 reusable bags and more than 40 concrete dustbins. The most important thing we organized was a summer-long camp for local children with the focus on leadership, compassion, respect, health, environmental sustainability and youth empowerment. The aim of our trip was to educate and empower the community in Nepal. But I think the trip educated and empowered my American friends just as much.
At AIS my passion for economics and service were born, and the idea that the two could be mixed was fully realized. My time in college further solidified how important merging my career with the service for others is to me. The Global Peace Exchange Project was particularly special because it helped me build a bridge between the life I had in Nepal and the life I have in America. It helped me show my family the world I am now a part of as well as showing my friends the world I came from. By learning about each other’s cultures we have grown more empathetic in our sometimes opposing opinions and ways of life. If everyone was given the opportunity to experience another culture like this, think how tolerant and empathetic our world could be.
After graduating from Birmingham Southern College in 2016, Saurav moved back to Atlanta. He joined AIS as an intern in the Development department, a tutor for current AIS students, mentor Grade 10 students with their Personal Project, and a coach for the track and cross-country teams; later this semester, Saurav will also be getting involved with the Stock Market and Investment Club. Check out Saurav’s work in in ‘The Himalayas: An Encyclopedia of Geography, History, and Culture’ - publication scheduled for May 2018.
Originally published in the Spring 2017 Global Exchange.