By Sean Savage
Meet Kushal Bhandari: a sparkling campus leader on Alden Street, and next year’s Student-Trustee Elect. The prestigious title is given to only one student on a campus of more than 4,000 undergraduates and graduates. This gives him a role in making major decisions to shape how the college is run alongside the Board of Trustees and President Mary Beth Cooper.
Outside of this, he is a Business Management and Computer Information Sciences double-major, the Business Club president and an Administrative Director of the Y-Club.
But the list does not end there for the young stud.
He is also a Resident Assistant in Alumni Hall, where he helps students weave through the challenges of college – making for a welcoming environment.
Now, meet Aavash Sapkota:
Sapkota is a very calm, cool and collected individual. Sapkota too has his fair share of accomplishments under his belt, and is another individual who has shined as a campus leader.
Outside of studying Computer Information Sciences, he is a chief board member of the Y-Club and the vice president of the Business Club.
Similar to Bhandari, Sapkota will also be a Resident Assistant next year.
They are doing this all while being over 7,000 miles from their home in Nepal. They each came to Springfield after leaving home for the first time ever.
But it was not always like this.
Step back in time two years ago, and nobody would ever foresee this coming. Bhandari and Sapkota would find themselves trying to find a light for seemingly dark days on repeat.
“Even if I tried to find happiness, it was physically impossible,” Bhandari said.
Nepal is a landlocked country in South Asia bordered by China and India. It is located in the Himalayas and contains eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks.
For the first 18 years of their lives, this was home for them. Stepping into the ambiance of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, one might be “a little bit scared” due to the “hustling and bustling world,” according to Sapkota.
Walking the crowded streets are amicable, kind and welcoming people. However, for the two youngsters, they never felt the warmth of other citizens.
In Bhandari’s case, he found pressure on how others viewed him. “I have this anxiety of how people will treat me or how they will take my opinion,” Bhandari said.
On the other hand, he was not afraid to speak out against anything he did not like, and others were not fond of that trait. “That led to an isolation, leaving me with only one or two friends,” Bhandari said.
Usually, Bhandari would voice his opinion trying to derail gender stereotypes. “If anyone had a different sexual identity, [classmates] would not even let them express that because that would not be a typical person’s capabilities,” Bhandari said.
The extent to which Bhandari’s classmates went to bully those who are different from them stretched beyond that as well. Passing on sexist comments, making fun of people with physical disabilities and making racist remarks were common in the classroom.
Bhandari received many verbal threats from classmates at a young age, but he would not let the fear engulf him.
Sapkota found himself on a similar road. “I was not heavily bullied there, but I was taunted,” Sapkota said. “I am a person who likes to have my own space, but others thought I was just too shy.”
However, the reality was that Sapkota needed time to figure out who he was, an arduous task for any adolescent.
Although these were not the driving factors to leave Nepal, they still weighed in the decision. What caused the leap of faith to the States was leadership opportunities, the education system, extracurriculars and college life – essentially, the “American Dream.”
“Everyone [in the States] has their own platform. They get a huge platform to present their ideas, which gives them a lot of opportunities and the chance to interact with other people,” Sapkota said.
Hearing about the States helped them persevere through high school, where the two met, and from there, they started applying to schools.
So this was it, a lifeline to propel them into future success. “America was like a beacon of hope for me,” Bhandari said.
But there was a problem: getting a visa during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the time, the U.S. embassy in Nepal closed and had minimal visa slots, so they would have to go to India for their visa.
Paint the picture, and the canvas becomes a mess. Firstly, traveling to India pushed mental and physical barriers – entailing a 20-minute walk in the scorching sun and gusty winds, a 15-hour drive to the border, and then a three-hour plane ride to arrive in Delhi.
Secondly, India was a foreign country for them. “It seemed to be kinda scary,” Sapkota said. “I have never been to such a crowded place.”
By the time they both landed, it was 11 p.m., and they had to take an Uber to the hotel where they were staying. But, Sapkota and Bhandari were with many other people with the same goal.
“It was very hard for us to find the hotel. People were trying to frantically scramble to get into their hotels; it was pretty tough for us,” Sapkota said.
That would be an understatement. By the time the two got to the hotel, it was 3 a.m., and the room had not even been cleaned.
Not long after, chills were sent down their spine – it was time for the interview. A mere five-minute conversation would decide the fate of their futures.
“I just remember the emotions flowing inside of me so quickly – I do not even know how to explain it,” Sapkota said. “I just reminded myself of my dreams and what I was going to do.”
Everything was moving so fast that there was not much time immediately beforehand to prepare for the interview. Additionally, people had been rejected from getting their visas right before Sapkota and Bhandari went, which threw them off any path of complete confidence.
“I saw other people getting rejected, which was really triggering for me,” Sapkota said. “It was kind of like a do-or-die situation.” Their last pieces of hope blended with nerves and the fear of rejection.
One after another, the two-headed in, now face-to-face with the people who held their future in their hands.
And then it happened. They were approved.
“That was the biggest relief of my life,” Bhandari said. “The first thing I did was call my parents.”
Through the peak of COVID and every other obstacle, they persevered. “It was like finding a gem in the forest,” Bhandari said.
However, there was not much time to celebrate – they had 20 days before they would be off to the U.S..
They applied to schools together as they could not do so before getting a visa.
After applying to different schools they eventually found Springfield College, and it offered the best scholarship. They were set to head to Alden Street.
On Aug. 31, 2021, the flight date into a new realm of life, with better opportunities.
Leading up to the days, Sapkota and Bhandari relished every last moment with their families as they would not know when the next time they would get to see them.
“We only had so much time before we were going to start a new life in a new land we have never seen before,” Bhandari said.
In Sapkota’s case, he only got around three days with his mom, who had COVID.
Before they knew it, the 20 days were up, and they found themselves sitting in the plane that would take them to the States.
Although there was much uncertainty about what would unfold, there was also a sense of excitement to discover a whole new world.
That excitement would be washed away as soon as the plane landed at Bradley Airport.
A dark, stormy night took Sapkota and Bhandari by surprise.
What is this? They wondered.
Soon, they arrived and realized the light they had been searching for in the U.S. was nowhere to be found.
They were alone.
“We were really scared,” Sapkota said. “We had nobody to talk to; it felt like we were thrown inside a jail or something.”
The two arrived on campus late at night and were placed into a dark room in the Lakeside basement. Stepping into the dark abyss of a room, there was no bedding on the mattress, and all they had to eat was ramen noodles without a microwave and an apple.
“I could not sleep the whole night,” Sapkota said. “I was not sure if I was even in the right place; I was really confused.”
Even after the first day, challenges would loom as they moved into Reed Hall as roommates – they knew they were in for a difficult year of transition. It was hard to connect with people on campus.
“Nobody wanted to be friends with me,” Bhandari said. “Because of this, I could not make any memories.”
Family weekend was an especially hard time for them. As other students rejoiced with families and newfound friends, their own families were 7,000 miles away.
“It was so sad; every other freshman in Reed [Hall] was having so much fun,” Bhandari said. “It was hard to go through the night hearing loud noises of them going out and coming back.”
While some people treated them kindly, others were less than welcoming.
“They were constantly banging our doors,” Sapkota said. “They would smear ketchup packets against our doors too. It was so triggering and frustrating that I could not even do homework in my room.”
Their friend, sophomore Rishi Lamichhane, finally realized the severity of what the two had to endure.
“The way I describe it now is they were living in their own bubble,” he said. “They were lost for their first two semesters.”
The American Dream was slipping away, and all hope was just about lost.
“At least I had someone to share my sufferings with,” Bhandari said. “It was helpful to have someone next to you who was experiencing similar feelings.”
But in time, their vibrant personalities would shine through – and people began to recognize that these were two bright, creative and talented young men who could make a strong contribution on the campus.
Fast forward to 2023 – sophomore year – where they seem to be soaring.
In the back of Bhandari’s head, he knew: “I did not come this far to be an average student,” he said. “There was fear of the expectations of my parents and myself, but I did not let those get the better of me.”
The Director of the International Center, Heather St. Germaine, has been impressed by both of the young men from Nepal.
“They are very friendly and warm people,” she said. “Kushal and Aavash take the friendliness and warmth to another level.”
Lamichhane took note of the exponential growth he had seen within a year. “They have absolutely skyrocketed,” he said. “It is so great to see them be so involved.”
Lamichhane also commented on their genuine personas. “They have this ability of instantly making someone’s mood,” he said. “I do not know what it is about them – I call it a healing property. It is like a superpower to heal people.”
Photo Courtesy of Kushal Bhandari/Aavash Sapkota