These Nepali Students Saw Their Scholarships Fall Through. Then Came Hope, Doubt, and ‘Admissions Hunger Games.’
By Eric Hoover MAY 06, 2018
Roshan Poudel got an offer, just as he had hoped. On the last day of April, he received an email from the State University of New York’s campus in South Korea. “Congratulations!” the message began. SUNY was giving him a scholarship — a big one.
For the second time in three months, Poudel, who lives in Pokhara, Nepal, had received a full-ride offer from a faraway college. The first had vanished; this one would not. But there was little time to answer an important question: Did he really want to spend the next four years in South Korea?
As The Chroniclereported last week, Poudel was one of 93 Nepali students who had accepted a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Tyler for the fall. And he was among the 61 who, in mid-April, learned that the university had rescinded the offer, citing “extraordinary demand.” Tyler had promised many more scholarships than it could afford to give. There had been, the university said, an “oversight.”
That’s a mild word for what was, in fact, an inexplicable mistake that shredded the plans of 61 teenagers on the other side of the world. The oversight stranded them with few options at the tail end of the admissions cycle. The oversight left them with no recourse and little faith in American colleges.
As much as the Nepali students were rooting for one another, circumstances had forced them to fend for themselves.
What happened next was just as remarkable. Strangers from all over the world reached out to the Nepali students, who each day tasted hope, doubt, and fear. While searching for another college, any college they could afford, the prospective students learned about generosity and its limits. And after forging their own online support group, they found themselves in a painful competition — with one another.
Poudel had celebrated his acceptance to UT-Tyler over a family dinner of fried chicken and soda, just like an American kid might have done. He had always wanted to study in the United States, where he and many Nepali students believed they would find the best universities.
After Tyler revoked the scholarship, though, he couldn’t be picky. In late April, SUNY Korea, which is in Incheon, offered to make room for three of the Nepali students, offering each a full scholarship. First, they had to apply. Poudel, one of about a dozen who did so, stayed up until 3 a.m. completing the online form.
About a day later, his acceptance arrived. The scholarship would cover tuition, fees, housing, and meals. It included 10 hours a week of work-study. “I am EXTREMELY happy,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle last Monday.
Yet a little while later his happiness ebbed. All of a sudden, Poudel felt scared. Scared of South Korea, where he wouldn’t know the native language or culture, where he had never imagined himself living. The university stood 2,500 miles to the northeast, beyond the broad expanse of China, across the Yellow Sea.
The letter from SUNY Korea said he must claim the offer by May 4, after which it would expire. The date was in bold type. He had four days to decide.
The Nepali students had so much and yet so little. They carried strong academic records: All were A students with a 1350 or better on the SAT and high scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Many of them knew what they wanted to study and why. Yet most lacked the resources to pay for college, making their situation all the more desperate.
When Joan Liu first heard about their plight, she understood what it was — a college-access emergency. So she threw herself into it.
Liu, a college adviser at United World College of South East Asia, in Singapore, knew the life-changing power of scholarships. One had enabled her father to study at a university in Taiwan, and later he got a full ride to the University of Alberta, where he earned a graduate degree. “Without that scholarship,” Liu wrote in a Facebook post in late April, “my life would’ve been profoundly different.”
A college education, she knew, would change the Nepali students’ lives, too. Degrees would spark global mobility, multiply opportunities. But money unlocked higher education’s door. And someone had to help them find that key.
In Nepal, most high-school students don’t have a college counselor. Typically, they get help with their applications from a teacher, if they get help at all. In any case, all the students left in the lurch by Tyler had graduated at least eight months earlier. They were, Liu said, “in an unregulated space, where the are no rules.”
From her office in Singapore, Liu orchestrated an ad-hoc college-counseling campaign. She did it with Selena Malla, an educational adviser at the the EducationUSA Advising Center, in Katmandu, whom she met a couple months earlier. The two women connected virtually with every Nepali student they could find and asked them to send their credentials, which Malla verified and entered into a database. Day and night, they advised students from afar, via Facebook and WhatsApp.
The chaos brought confusion, as advisers engaged with students they didn’t know. One day Liu and Malla found themselves chatting with a teenager named Abishek, whom, they thought, had applied to SUNY Korea. “Nope,” the student wrote; that was a different Abishek.
Drawing on 20 years of contacts, Liu wrote to many people she knew in the vast realm of college admissions. She sent pleas into cyberspace, found college counselors in the region to connect with some of the students one on one. Barely sleeping, she and Malla plowed through emails pouring in from everywhere. Hour by hour, they traded information, advice, and inspirational photos.
With April winding down, good news came from the Lone Star State. Texas Christian University wanted to pitch in, big time.
Heath Einstein, TCU’s dean of admission, felt for the Nepali students. And when Liu contacted his university asking for help, he was inclined to give it. “The appropriate thing to do,” he said.
Whether the campus could swing it was the question. The timing complicated things: With the May 1 admission-deposit deadline looming, Texas Christian didn’t yet know exactly who was coming or how many outstanding aid offers it would have to fulfill. Also, giving the Nepali students money was one thing; ensuring that the campus could support them was another.
Einstein met with the university’s director of international admissions, financial-aid officials, and the head of international student services to come up with a plan. Finally, the chancellor gave the green light. The college would provide a full scholarship, of about $65,000 annually, to two students.
Malla recommended a young man and a young woman whom she thought would be a good fit. While reviewing their records, Einstein was struck by each teenager’s curiosity and sense of wonderment. It was good, one had written, “to sit in thought.” He agreed.
After receiving all their application materials, TCU extended the offers, which the two students gratefully accepted. All the university had done, Einstein told The Chronicle, was uphold its mission statement, which said members of the campus should “act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.”
Liu was thrilled. Still, she knew that Texas Christian’s offer, like SUNY Korea’s, was exceptional. The hope that dozens of other colleges would also deliver substantial awards was looking more and more unlikely each day.
Agap. That’s what many students were seeing, even if at first they didn’t understand what it was.
Liu posted an explanation to the Facebook group the Nepali students had created: “One of the things that is going on right now is something that we call ‘gapping.’ (Rhymes with tapping.)” A gap, she wrote, was the difference between a college’s aid offer and a student’s full financial need.
“It was like 'Here, we're going to give you two tires,' after telling them 'We're going to give you a car.'”
Yes, that sounded familiar. After UT at Tyler had revoked its full scholarships, it offered each affected applicant a $5,000 award, a fraction of the full freight that international students pay, about $27,000 a year. The university also offered to charge them the in-state tuition rate, but that still would have left them with a five-figure gap. “It was like ‘Here, we’re going to give you two tires,’” Liu said, “after telling them ‘We’re going to give you a car!’”
And now many students were getting acceptances from other colleges — but not the figurative car. Rupesh Koirala, from Dharan, posted an update in the Facebook group: “I have been awarded full tuition by Ramapo College of New Jersey. My family can afford 6k; but the room and board costs 12k.” An admissions officer, he wrote, told him that the university “has no additional funding at all. Will I … be benefited by it?”
That was a tough question. For most of the students, Liu said, such offers weren’t viable. They didn’t have grandparents who could help out or savings accounts to tap. Some students came from households with an annual income well below $10,000. There was no stretching that.
Roshan Poudel had a gap, too. In mid-March, he received an acceptance from the University of Texas at Arlington. His family was a bit better off than others, so even though the aid package left him with a $8,000 hole, he figured his parents could fill it, especially if he found a part-time job. When Tyler revoked his scholarship, Arlington was his best option, so he sent in his deposit.
But two weeks later, the full scholarship from SUNY Korea arrived, leaving him with a dilemma. Sure, he could pursue a computer-science degree on either campus, but there were many other considerations. On Wednesday afternoon, just two days before he had to inform SUNY Korea of his decision, he sat alone his room, weighing his options.
Poudel didn’t want to decline such a generous offer, to throw away a treasure that had just fallen from the sky. But the U.S. felt “warm,” he said, and Korea did not. Many Nepali students went to American colleges each year, which gave him “a feeling of security.” Then again, if he went to SUNY Korea, his parents would save a lot of money, which would help them pay for his little brother Rohan’s college education.
Something else troubled him. The fairness of what was happening.
The aftermath of the debacle at Tyler had turned into a free-for-all. Some colleges reached out to students directly after seeing them interviewed on television, reading about them in newspaper articles, or spotting them on social media. And why not? There were no rules to follow in a situation like this.
Meanwhile, several colleges had essentially invited any and all of the Nepali students to apply. So applicants were competing with one another for one or two spots — and whatever scholarships were still available. “Admissions Hunger Games,” Liu dubbed it, riffing on the title of the best-selling books. In The Hunger Games trilogy, impoverished children in a dystopian realm must compete in an annual televised death match. The last one standing wins.
As much as the Nepali students were rooting for one another, circumstances had forced them to fend for themselves. Poudel understood that a student could pocket a scholarship and then quietly keep hunting for a better offer. If such an offer came along, say, a week later, he or she would drop the first offer, which otherwise would have gone to someone who desperately needed it. “That is unethical,” he said. “We should think about our friends, too. Not be greedy.”
While texting with Liu last week, Poudel sent three consecutive messages describing the strange dynamics of the competition unfolding around him.
“Whenever any university offers a scholarship, many apply.”
“Even if they are not interested or have other offers.”
“So, a single student might end up with 10 offers.”
“That is correct,” Liu wrote back.
“While others might not get any,” Poudel wrote.
“You are right,” Liu replied.
It was an imperfect situation all around. The timing couldn’t have been worse, the students were especially vulnerable. Plenty of people wanted to help, but on many campuses, resources were limited.
Last Monday morning, Sushil K. Acharya read The Chronicle’s article about the revoked scholarships. “This is horrible,” he wrote in an email. A Nepali himself, he had helped raise money to support recovery efforts after a massive earthquake devastated his homeland, in April 2015. This, too, called for action.
Acharya, a professor of software engineering at Robert Morris University, in Pittsburgh, asked what his institution could do to help. He contacted Wendy C. Beckemeyer, vice president for enrollment management, who was asking herself the same question. She thought back to 2005, when colleges everywhere stepped in to help students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Beckemeyer didn’t want to spread false hope. “Do we create more problems,” she said, “if we say ‘This is what we can do,’ and it’s not enough?” Yet Acharya told her that Robert Morris should provide what it could and see what happened. Ultimately, the university decided to offer its top scholarship, covering tuition and fees for four years, to one Nepali applicant.
After contacting Malla, in Katmandu, Robert Morris emailed several of the students, inviting them to apply. The message explained that the university would accept applications until May 15, after which it would give the scholarship to one person, who would still have to cover room and board, about $11,000 a year, plus travel and other expenses. Meanwhile, all accepted applicants who qualified for other merit scholarships would be offered them.
Within an hour, 17 Nepalis responded, and three sent applications. Soon there were 20 applicants.
Archana Adhikari was one of them. She lived in Chitwan, near a lush national park. All her life she had seen villagers gathering medicinal plants to treat their ailments. Despite the region’s botanical treasures, she had learned, Nepal hadn’t invested in research that would support local manufacturing of medicine. She wanted to study biomedical science so that one day she could help design pharmaceuticals.
“I have will and capacity to do,” she told The Chronicle. “I will stand out if a college provides me the opportunity.”
Adhikari would need a lot of money, though. Her parents, both teachers, had saved what they could for college. They could pay $6,000-$7,000 a year. That’s all.
After Liu told her about The Hunger Games, Adhikari read all the books. She, too, saw parallels between the story and the Nepali students’ predicament. Most came from modest backgrounds, and now, she said, “had to fight for one seat at the last moment.”
As she typed those words early last Friday morning, Adhikari could see a heavy, gray sky through her window. The day stretching before her would be like the day before and the day before that. She would not go outside. She would spend hours on the computer, chatting with friends, completing applications, and getting advice from Liu and Malla. She would wait for any shred of good news to appear on her screen.
Adhikari had no way of knowing that a late-afternoon hailstorm would knock out the power for 30 hours.
Bad luck had rained down on the Nepali students, but many believed things would change. Elsewhere in Chitwan, Roman Shrestha had little to do but wait. In his room, a Manchester United poster reminded him that the world was gigantic. The planet was bursting with colleges. Somewhere, one of them, he said, would give him a “good home.”
After Tyler pulled his offer, Shrestha applied to the University of Denver. The University of Akron. The University of Idaho. He was on the waitlist at Lehigh University. He was considering applying to more colleges.
Wherever he went, Shrestha would need a lot of financial support. His mother works long hours running a small grocery store. His older sisters, who both have jobs, help support the family. What made him happiest about the initial offer from UT-Tyler was the thought that it would ease their burden.
Since mid-April, Shrestha hadn’t exercised. He hadn’t opened the YouTube app even once. At dinner he spooned his steamed rice half-heartedly. He was quick to congratulate friends who got the offers from SUNY Korea and Texas Christian. Yet the happy news also made him sad. “I don't have any moods for anything,” he wrote to The Chronicle late last week. “My mind is always occupied with what shall I do, what will happen.”
The Nepali students had attracted international attention. The Kathmandu Post ran a story (“Texas University Decision Spikes Nepali Students’ Dreams”), and a slew of other media outlets reported the news. People on other continents sent supportive messages and hateful ones, too. On Twitter, a man in Tyler, Tex., mocked the students’ call for justice: “What justice?? Lol. A handout??”
The University of Texas at Tyler, which ended up giving its top scholarship to 32 Nepali students, has not offered to advise the 61 whose offers it revoked. The university lacked the resources and expertise for that, a spokesman said. Tyler did forward messages to them from other universities that apparently still had scholarship money to offer international applicants (some of the Nepali students found those messages insulting).
Last week, Tyler released a written statement: “We are deeply grateful for the independent efforts from the international admissions community to help impacted students land well.”
After May 1 passed, Liu kept pushing from Singapore, and Malla kept pushing from Katmandu. They helped a sixth student get placed, at Youngstown State University. They advised another student who was considering the University of Cincinnati, but who had to find a way to pay about $18,000, which was slightly less than what his parents had in the bank; he planned to ask his uncle for help.
Last week, the advisers heard from a philanthropy called the Catalyst Foundation, which was apparently considering the possibility of covering the gaps in some students’ aid packages. The advisers had looked into crowdfunding and asked airlines to help pay for flights. They had talked with one university where officials were considering creative ways of limiting costs, such as placing Nepali students with host families.
The students kept proving their resourcefulness. They had created a comprehensive spreadsheet of possible sponsors who might help them pay for college.
Though exhausted, Liu was optimistic. She believed that all the Nepali students would eventually find their way to a campus. Somehow.
Still, reminders of just how weird this story was kept coming. The students knew that Roshan Poudel had offers from SUNY Korea and UT-Arlington, and some thought he had the power to determine who would take his spot at the university he turned down. “I would be quite happy if I would be provided the scholarship,” one student wrote to Liu. “What are the possible steps to follow?”
Poudel vowed to write a gracious letter to the university he declined after making his final choice. And that’s exactly what he did. “Though I understand that the funds for scholarship are limited at the moment, your institution can help by transferring my scholarship to an affected student,” he wrote. “So, I sincerely request you transfer my [scholarship] to a UT Tyler affected student who has no university to attend. Almost all of the UT Tyler affected students have similar profiles, some are better than me in many aspects. They can be a valuable asset to your institution."
As for his own decision, Poudel went back and forth as the May 4 deadline neared. He emailed more than a dozen specific questions to an admissions officer at SUNY Korea, and received a specific answer to each one. He got on the telephone with a college counselor who was South Korean and asked her about studying in her native country. In less than 100 hours, he learned as much as he could about a university he had known nothing about. He wouldn’t have to learn Korean to study at SUNY Korea, he realized, but he could do so if he chose. Maybe that would be a hassle. Or maybe it was an opportunity.
Yet the thought of moving to Korea still scared him. The thought of moving to the U.S. did not. SUNY Korea had a good reputation. The UT system had cachet. He asked himself what he wanted most. To study in the United States? To get a good education without burdening his parents?
Poudel tried to picture himself graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington and from SUNY Korea. What kind of man would he be then? Which degree would be more valuable? What would he have accomplished on each campus?
The questions stormed in his head as the sun set on Wednesday. He decided to sleep on it.
Poudel wrestled with the decision all day Thursday before making his choice. About an hour before midnight, he opened Gmail and started a new message, typing the words that would bend his future toward one horizon and away from another. “It is my honor,” he wrote, “to accept this offer and be a part of SUNY Korea.” He said a prayer and then clicked “Send.”
Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
More news: University of Texas Apologizes - https://www.chronicle.com/article/U-of-Texas-System-Apologizes/243402
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