“I Had No Idea I Would be the Person I Am Today:” Senior Aditi Sharma’s “Leap of Faith” from Nepal to Hollins

 

After graduating from high school in her native city of Kathmandu, Nepal, Aditi Sharma ’21 wasn’t sure how she wanted to further her studies. But there was one thing at the time of which she was absolutely certain.

“I had little intention of coming to America” to go to college, she said. “I wanted to stay near to my family.”

 

The events that led to Sharma taking what she calls a “leap of faith” to venture on her own to the United States and attend Hollins University began during the gap year she took after finishing high school.

“In Nepal, the subjects you take in high school are usually what you are going to do for life,” Sharma explained. “I took accounting, so during my gap year I worked as a finance assistant to see if that field was actually for me before jumping into college.”

Sharma was employed by a nonprofit organization in the public health sector. She interacted with clients from around the globe, and it was a representative from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) who first suggested that she consider institutions of higher learning in the U.S. “He felt that there were many more programs in America that would be beneficial for me as well as some good scholarship opportunities. Financial considerations were big for me coming from a developing country.”

While not totally convinced, Sharma nevertheless applied to several U.S. universities. “My parents had studied in India and Nepal, so they had no idea what was involved. My high school counselor was very helpful, but mostly I was navigating everything from financial aid to applying for a visa by myself. It was very daunting.”

As the time to make a decision approached, Sharma found herself increasingly drawn to Hollins. “I took a virtual tour of campus and saw how beautiful it was,” she said, but what impressed her most was the personal approach of the Office of Admission.

“They reached out to me and were so open. I felt like I was being heard. I had no idea what I was doing, and they were so quick to respond to my questions, even the smallest ones. From filling out forms to learning what Hollins is about, what it offers, and what accommodations it has for international students. I felt like I already belonged to the community.”

Aditi Sharma '21 First Step
Bearing a cider bottle decorated for the occasion, Sharma celebrated the First Step tradition on Front Quad last fall to begin her senior year.

Bolstered by a belief in herself and support from the people who had seen her potential, particularly her family, Sharma enrolled at Hollins. “My family didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but they wanted the best education for me.” Sharma lived with her parents, paternal grandparents, and a younger sister, “and everyone was always encouraging, telling me to be the best I can be. I was so thankful that they trusted my judgement.”

After arriving at Hollins, Sharma enjoyed her freedom and learning so many new things. “I knew what I wanted to study (she would become a business and economics major pursuing a finance track). At the same time, being in a liberal arts environment I got to take all these amazing classes in sociology, environmental science, art history, and drawing.” Still, adjusting to a new environment, speaking English all the time, and missing her family were at times stressful. She credits History Rocks, her first-year seminar with Associate Professor of History Peter Coogan, with boosting her confidence.

“Professor Coogan and that class encouraged me to speak out. I’m very vocal now about a lot of things. My high school friends wouldn’t recognize me, I was so timid then and in the shadows. In Coogan’s class you were obliged to talk, and once that started happening my confidence grew. History Rocks really helped me, and I can’t thank him enough.”

Finding her voice, Sharma got actively involved with Hollins’ Student Government Association (SGA), Cultural and Community Engagement (CCE), and the International Student Orientation Program (ISOP). “I still remember contacting a Hollins senior before I arrived here. She helped me with things like, what and what not to pack, which flight to take, and what airport to fly into. You’re coming from your own comfortable home space, you’re scared and you’re nervous about moving into a new country, and I always let incoming international students know if they need anything I’m always here. CCE has a great structure for connecting international students and guiding communication and going through all these changes and opportunities together as a group really helps. I love seeing the international population at Hollins grow.”

Aditi Sharma '21 Windsor Castle
Experiencing Windsor Castle was a must for Sharma when she began her study abroad experience in London in February 2020.

One of Sharma’s most remarkable experiences occurred last spring when she embarked on a semester abroad in London. She had always been fascinated by the United Kingdom and reveled in visiting landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. She also had an internship lined up with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “As soon as I heard London had an internship program, I knew I wanted to go there. When I landed, it felt like I was walking on air.”

Sharma and her friends first began hearing about the COVID outbreak near the end of February when they learned students studying abroad in Italy were forced to return home. “I felt really bad for them, but I was still in denial,” she said. “There was no news of anything in London or the UK as a whole.”

But after coming back from a group excursion to Sweden in early March, London students were notified by the International Programs office at Hollins that Hollins Abroad-London was transitioning to online instruction due to COVID’s threat. Students could either continue living with their host families or go home.

“I wasn’t planning on returning to Nepal,” Sharma said. “I had lined up a job on campus with the Alumnae Association for the summer, so I was going to travel directly from London back to Hollins at the end of Spring Term.”

Then, Sharma and other students in London learned from International Programs that the U.S. policy had changed and that students who were not from the U.S. would not be allowed back into the country. Simultaneously, the UK announced it was going into lockdown within two days. “I had to book a flight immediately to Nepal. The trip is about 21 hours, and I would have to make a connecting flight along the way. What if the place where I’m in transit gets locked down and I can’t fly out from there? Fortunately, a fellow student from Nepal and I got the perfect flight out just before the UK lockdown began.”

Meredith Pierce Hunter '97 and Aditi Sharma '21, RBG Kew
Meredith Pierce Hunter ’97 (left) was instrumental in arranging Sharma’s internship with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London.

Sharma was relieved to touch down in Nepal, but deeply sorry to leave London and particularly her internship, which had been coordinated by Hollins alumna Meredith Pierce Hunter ’97. “I wanted to work in fundraising in the fine arts sector. Meredith was very involved in the whole process and all the people on the internship were extremely helpful. It broke my heart to leave without saying goodbye.” Fortunately, there would be good news for Sharma after she arrived back in Nepal: Hunter had worked with International Programs to ensure that Sharma could continue her international internship virtually. “I was so happy. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, a dream come true.”

London is six hours behind Nepal, but Sharma was able to successfully juggle taking two online classes while completing her internship. Typically, she would work on her internship between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. (Nepal time) and then attend classes remotely at night. “I was so grateful to continue the internship. I did so much work, there was no difficulty in communication, and they even threw me a virtual farewell party.”

Sharma remained in Nepal through the summer. When Hollins students were given the option for Fall Term 2020 to come back to campus or take classes remotely, she decided, “I wanted to experience my senior year in person.” As SGA treasurer this year, Sharma spearheaded one of her proudest accomplishments, a fund designed to help any on-campus resident who needed financial assistance to go home or live off-campus during Winter Break. “It worked out beautifully. My fellow roundtable members and the business office helped make sure the funds got into the students’ accounts. That’s why I did the fundraising internship in London, I wanted to see how I could use my financial knowledge to help others.”

Currently applying for jobs after graduation, Sharma is looking to build upon an already impressive resume that includes J-Term internships with Gilman Hill Asset Management, the International Spy Museum, and Omega Wealth Management. Ultimately, she plans to use that experience to earn acceptance to business school. As with her Royal Botanic Gardens internship, Sharma is grateful to the Hollins alumnae who curated those internships and continue to be very supportive. “Work experience is crucial to getting into business school because the finance and business fields place so much emphasis on learning and implementation. I’ve been reaching out to alumnae and they’ve been really helpful and responsive.”

When she first arrived in America, Sharma “had no idea I would be the person I am today. This is where I have had the most experiences, where I’ve been myself the most. I’ve been challenged, and I’ve challenged myself. It all happened here. It all happened at Hollins.”

 

 

 


Sophomore from Nepal Helps New International Students Feel at Home

Traveling thousands of miles away from home to a country you’ve never visited and attending a college you’ve never seen except online would be a daunting task for anyone. Yet that was the challenge that Grishma Bhattarai ’20 boldly accepted when she made the trek from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Hollins a little over a year ago.

“No matter how confident I looked, at the end of the day I was a little scared,” Bhattarai admits, looking back. But today, the economics and mathematics double major is thriving, both in and out of the classroom, and despite a demanding schedule, one of her highest priorities is assisting other international students after they start their education at Hollins.

“When I came to Hollins, I immediately met people who knew my name and who had taken the time to learn about me, my interests, and my likes and dislikes before I had even arrived,” Bhattarai recalls. “They created a space of comfort for me. I felt I needed to do the same for other international students when they came to campus. I wanted to become their friend and confidant so that I could help them during their first year’s journey at Hollins.”

Bhattarai is a peer mentor with Hollins’ International Student Orientation Program (ISOP), which prepares students from abroad for living and studying at the university. “For international students it can be difficult because they are coming from so many different cultures. Breaking the ice with them at the very beginning is important to get to know more about them and where they’re from. We talk to them about culture shock and help them become familiar with what will be new to them in America.”

What students should expect both academically and on a personal level at Hollins is the second focus of Bhattarai and other peer mentors. “One the biggest objectives of being a peer mentor is sharing your experience as a first-year student. I talk with new students about what they can do to succeed academically and I’m also open about the mistakes that I made so that they can avoid them.”

ISOP isn’t limited to just a few days at the outset of the new academic session. Peer mentors remain dedicated to new international students throughout their entire first year. “During the fall and spring, we get together for weekly dinners and talk about the classes they are taking, something new they are experiencing, or some concern they are having so that we can tackle the problem together,” Bhattarai explains. “ISOP, especially for Hollins, is a way to build a family within the campus community. There’s this safe space where students can express their anxieties and we can help them.”

Bhattarai believes the best advice she can give to an international student who is considering coming to America to continue their education is to “be open minded, be open to new experiences, and be open to meeting new people. The undergraduate experience is going to be really different from what you had in high school, especially considering the fact you’re also going to be immersed in a completely different culture.”

That attitude served Bhattarai well. Even though before coming to Hollins she had spent her entire educational life studying in an all-girls’ convent school and knew she wanted to attend a women’s college, she says she was pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere Hollins offered.

“Nepal’s education system does not allow you to try new subjects. But Hollins is this amazing liberal arts college where you can study different subjects before you have to actually choose your major. I never thought I’d be taking a dance history class and learning about Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan. I never thought I would study calculus and apply it in my daily life.

“Hollins is a place where there are no boundaries. You can do whatever you want to do.”

In addition to her work as an ISOP peer mentor, Bhattarai is vice chair of Hollins’ academic policy board and serves on the university’s Honor Court. She provides campus tours for prospective students and in June was part of the staff for Reunion 2017. She’s participating in the Honors Seminar Program and is presently investigating internship and research opportunities for next summer, including one offered at MIT.

“I want to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and Hollins has been shaping me for that,” Bhattarai says. “I’m planning to do study abroad in Italy during my junior year and that’s going to enrich my experience as a global citizen.” In her doctorate work, she intends to “look at the economy and living standards of rural, struggling communities and developing countries from a women’s studies and developmental economics perspective.”

Another factor that was impactful for Bhattarai during her first year at Hollins was the inspiration she received from President Nancy Gray, who retired this summer. Now, because of her international background, new president Pareena Lawrence is providing Bhattarai’s sophomore year with a singular resonance.

“Seeing a president who is similar to you in so many ways, it gives you a special drive to do better. Having a woman of color in the biggest position on campus, someone I can look up to in a genuine manner, it makes me feel that maybe someday I can reach that position, too. I’m so thankful for that. That’s something Hollins is giving me this year.”