For most Fresno State graduates, post-commencement activities include a cheerful celebration with loved ones or a short commute home to their parents. For Rama Paudel, the days after graduation looked different: It was three connecting flights and 40 hours of travel before Paudel, weary from her journey, arrived at Tribhuvan International Airport in her home country of Nepal.
Paudel, who is from the small, rural village of Chilaunebas, recalls the shock of seeing the destruction and trauma her country has suffered since it was struck with a horrific earthquake in late April.
The initial earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25 killed nearly 8,700 people and has left more than 20,000 injured. Continued aftershocks occurred throughout the country in the following weeks, including a major blow near the eastern border on May 12: a 7.3-magnitude earthquake which reportedly killed 65 and injured thousands more.
The disaster spurred the 27-year-old into active volunteer work just a few days after returning to Nepalese soil, only eight days after graduating with her master’s degree in plant science from Fresno State.
Nepal relief efforts became her immediate passion and priority after ensuring that her family was safe. These efforts have included research, medical relief, teaching children and engaging with community leaders throughout the country.
She shared her story, from a Fresno State international student to a rebuilder of Nepal, with us. Here it is, in her own words.
How did you first learn of the earthquake?
It was night time in the United States of America. I talked with my sisters in Skype and slept. My phone was off. When I woke up in the morning and checked my Facebook, I was shocked to see the devastating scene of Nepal. Coincidentally, the first picture I saw was from the Bhaktapur Darbar Square. My younger sisters were living nearby that area.
What did you first think when you heard about the earthquake?
I was totally shocked, I started to cry. I was scared to contact with family and posted a status in Facebook asking the situation of my family. After a while my uncle responded that my family were safe. I was more worried about my younger sisters who were living in a highly-affected region.
What emotions did you experience during that time?
Although my uncle and other people were saying that my family were all right, I wanted to listen to their voice. I tried to contact with them but it was hard to connect due to network problems. After two hours, I became able to talk with my mother.
However, I could not feel relief. All the time I used to spend [was] checking Facebook and surfing the Internet to know the situation of Nepal. I was feeling that was the most tragic time in my life. Many people were dying, people were in streets, in tents and there were continuous aftershocks. I could not stop the tears and I think it was really heartbreaking.
Being away from home was the most painful position at that time. I was feeling helpless, witnessing the death of many people; the ruins of fallen monuments; and the trauma of family.
As you got closer to graduating with your master’s degree, did you experience any conflict about being happy for your accomplishment and awards you received, when people in Nepal were suffering?
I have been very fortunate to achieve many awards and scholarships on the national level, state level, university level and college level during my graduate studies. I think these honors were provided to encourage my journey from a rural village to a graduate degree in USA and inspire and encourage my passion for volunteerism and interest to work for agricultural development along with social and economic transformation of rural communities.
Frankly saying, it was very hard for me to attend and enjoy any graduation events in the beginning. I was feeling emotionally very weak and I could not stop my tears when announcing my biography as graduate student achiever in Plant Science Department’s graduation banquet on April 30. I had my exit seminar scheduled for May 7 and it was very hard to focus in anything except the earthquake relief campaign. My professor, Dr. Anil Shrestha, received both the Outstanding Advisor Award and [the 2015] Provost Award for Excellence in Teaching.
When I attended the reception of these awards, I felt Nepal can bounce back soon and people like him are the strength of Nepal — that made me feel better and I became able to enjoy the moments to some extent.
My graduation became memorable because of the inspiring speech of my professor in university graduation. I was feeling very proud to be Nepali because even being from a small developing country, Nepal has excellent experts throughout the world and I truly believe that is our strength.
How did Fresno State respond to the tragedy?
I sent an email to President Dr. Castro by briefing him on the situation in Nepal and asking [him] to be with Nepal. I heartily appreciate the efforts by Dr. Castro for his appeal to help Nepal, International Student Support Program (ISSP), University Communications, Geography Club, staff and faculty and friends and local media for their support and concern about Nepal that made me feel we are not alone.
Dr. Castro stayed for the whole time [at the] Nepal vigil, he also asked me if I need any personal help to go home. That was really a big moral support and true guardianship. I am really grateful for Dr. Hofmann and the team in ISSP. When I went in ISSP, I saw an appeal to help Nepal in the front desk. That made me so emotional.
I truly felt that Fresno State was my home and everybody was with me at the moment.
Before the earthquake happened, what were you career plans once you arrived home?
When I became exposed with the commercial agriculture and development of California, I realized we are hundred years behind. Therefore, I wanted to come back to empower farmers and marginalized communities through improved agricultural practices, especially by establishing sustainable agro-ecosystem, promoting biodiversity and agro-tourism by utilizing local knowledge and resources in Nepal and looking for opportunities to work in coordination with different governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including rural farmers, women and marginalized communities.
How did your plans change once the earthquake happened?
I think my passion is the same: to help people thrive, especially women and children, but the path that I wanted to travel may change. I think it is too early to decide on that as I am researching about the situation and possibilities. I am now in the phase of research, rebuilding connection and developing coordination.
What plans did you start making with people back home?
I wanted to create a social campaign to help people to rebuild their family and village, coordinating with political leadership and civil society of Nepal. For that, when I came back, I traveled in many affected areas, community settlement in tents, observed many schools and talked with people, volunteered for a medical relief team and political and social leadership that made me able to understand about the actual situation and relief efforts. Now, I need to decide where I can be a help and where I can take initiative myself.
What is the name of the organization(s) you began volunteering with?
Firstly, I volunteered with a global Buddhist organization Tzu Chi Foundation, which is working within Kathmandu valley, which is getting more support from government and other agencies than in other remote areas. I was also in contact with one of the members of parliament and a charismatic young leader of Nepal, Mr. Gagan Thapa, who is working tirelessly for the planning and implementation of earthquake relief efforts in many remote areas in Nepal. I was also worried about the situation of remote areas so I decided to join with his team to build school[s] in remote mountainous areas of Rasuwa District.
I respect Ghandhian philosophy, therefore I am also connected with a Ghandhian team working for earthquake relief efforts from Gujrat Bidhyapith, which is an educational institution founded by Mahatma Ghandhi. Therefore, I am volunteering with multiple organizations doing multiple tasks.
What does an average day look like for you?
I usually start from 6 a.m. till night, [but it] also depends on the situation and location. Sometimes it takes a long time for travel.
I have been working as a translator for medical relief teams, meeting with community leaders, political leaders, government institutions, volunteering to engage and teach children, talking with women leaders about their problem and seeking solutions, door-to-door visits, school visits, etc.
What do you see on an average day?
Lots of things. Both frustrations with fear and hope with courage. People living in tents, working to rebuild their housing and schools, cracked and fallen housing and monuments.
What breaks your heart about the things you are seeing?
I cannot really say in one sentence or as one event. My heart breaks with the ignorance and irresponsible attitude of people. It also depends on location and situation. For example, when I was working in Kathmandu valley, I was broken by the situation of pregnant women and newborn children and mothers living in tents. When I traveled to remote hilly areas I was broken when I saw a person who lost three family members, waiting for hours to receive $100 cash, and the way donors wanted to highlight the event with so many photographs and videos. I became upset when people [were] waiting for external support for the things which they can manage themselves.
I usually become emotional when a child with innocent but bright eyes asks for help.
What gives you hope? What are the good deeds you see people doing?
It gives me hope, when I see the school kids working to rebuild their school building, carry furniture themselves and are interested to learn in any situation. It gives me hope when a youth who never had experience to go outside the home and was raised in a sophisticated family takes risks to go in remote rural areas to help others. It gives me strength when a young political leader works tirelessly not only to make policies and plans, but also carries a shovel to build schools in remote areas.
Have you been able to use any of your education in your volunteer efforts?
Sure, I was confident to work as a translator because of my abroad education. My education trained me to deal with different people and difficult situations and do research on different issues, which is important when volunteering in such a situation.
What are some of the biggest needs people have?
The biggest need for the people is to help them to help themselves, rather than helping them for their needs. The things we can change ourselves, we need to have courage to change it and the government needs to work on the needs we cannot fulfill in the community level. We need to get external support for the needs that we cannot manage ourselves within country.
Do you see yourself playing a role in Nepal’s efforts over the next few years?
Sure, as a youth working as a social and political activist, I think we can play a vital role to plan and implement many programs for reconstruction. We can coordinate with political persons, national and local media, national and international experts and organizations not only for the physical reconstruction of Nepal, but also for the social transformation for the development of Nepal. I can especially contribute to ensure food security during the crisis.
What about the Nepalese people makes you hopeful for the future of the country as you begin rebuilding?
The resilience and patience of the Nepalese people and the natural diversity and resources we have.
There are lots of challenges. However, I am highly optimistic that we can do a lot to make change in Nepal.
How do you see your education and your time at Fresno State playing a role (if any) in you continuing to help?
The confidence that I gained from Fresno State will be vital to keep my strength alive.
In addition, I will always have feelings that I am not alone and I have support of friends from all over the world. I will have support from my university and definitely the 3 million alumni of [California State University]. Definitely, the skills and experiences I gained from Fresno State will be a milestone that shapes my career.
To follow Rama’s journey or to give her a shout of encouragement, visit her on Facebook!