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Old Saybrook High School senior Tenzin Kunsel’s challenging path to high school graduation has resulted in her dream destination—she’ll attend Yale College in the fall. (Photo by Anna Gaboury )
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An acceptance to an Ivy League school is a big deal for most high school seniors. What must it mean to a student from a country nearly 12,000 miles away? Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) senior Tenzin Kunsel has lived for four years with her grandmother, apart from her parents and brother, in order to get a good education. In May, she learned that she was accepted to Yale.
For Kunsel, a devastating earthquake changed her life. Just before noon on April 25, 2015, an earthquake struck 48 miles northwest of Kathmandu, the Nepal capital, where she and her family lived. It measured 7.8 on the Richter scale.
That initial quake was followed within the hour by two aftershocks measuring 6.6 and 6.7. Nine thousand people were killed that day, thousands more were injured, and many hundreds of thousands of structures were destroyed or severely damaged.
Several more aftershocks followed, and on May 12, 17 days after the initial earthquake, an aftershock measuring 7.3 struck nearby, killing more than 100 more and injuring around 1,900.
“For two months...we were just sitting in a field,” Kunsel said.
Her family’s house was still standing, but the fear was that further aftershocks might destroy it.
“Aftershocks were coming. It wasn’t a good condition to live. Me, my mother, and my brother came to America” to stay with Kunsel’s paternal grandmother. “I stayed and my brother and mother went back when my father said it was safe.”
The decision whether or not to stay in the U.S. “was a choice given to me by my parents,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to pursue education and get the best for myself, especially because opportunities here are so much better than in Nepal.
“It was a hard decision, but I had to make it for my future,” she said. “I always I felt I’m going to come here. I thought I was old enough to leave my parents behind and just go for it.”
Kunsel travels to Nepal every two years for a month-long visit with her family.
“It’s really not long enough,” she said.
She entered OSHS as a freshman in the fall of 2015. The adjustment was difficult at first.
“I grew up in Nepal,” she said. “I’m very connected to the region. I grew up there, I speak Nepalese, I studied in a school where everyone was Nepalese.”
English at school in Nepal “was taught as more of a second language,” she explained. “I learned enough to speak it and interact with people.”
Once she started high school in Old Saybrook, “I was tired for the first few months to get used to the whole curriculum of school that’s so different than what I was used to in Nepal,” she said.
But there were resources available to her and teachers who were willing to help. She had never written an essay before, for instance.
“They were willing to help me and teach me to do stuff. And I was also working very hard,” she said. “I was able to overcome it.
“In the beginning... I couldn’t get into the social [life]; it was so difficult,” she added. “So I joined a lot of clubs and tried to communicate. By my junior year I had really good friends...It was normal for me by then.”
Although she applied to other schools, Yale was always Kunsel’s first choice.
She was initially waitlisted, “but I got off the waitlist in early May. It was really rewarding to know that all my hard work paid off. I was just really happy that I was able to make my parents proud and show that all the sacrifice that we’d made was worth it.”
Kunsel intends to “follow the pre-med track” and thinks she’ll major in chemistry or biochemistry. She has had internships in emergency rooms since her high school sophomore year, she said, and is currently interning at an optometry practice in Old Saybrook, where she was offered a summer job.
“I’ve been looking into the medical field and I really feel like I fit in,” she said.
Kunsel clearly comes from a family that values education. Her father “opened a school [in Kathmandu] for kids from remote villages in the Himalayan area and finds sponsors for them so they can come to the city to get an education,” Kunsel said. “He does it to give back.”
His sister, Kunsel’s aunt, and her husband obtained visas to emigrate to the U.S. years ago and helped support the family back in Nepal. She eventually brought Kunsel’s grandmother here, but Kunsel’s father chose to stay in Nepal. When asked why she thought that was, Kunsel said she’d have to ask him.
“He’s a man of few words,” she said.
Last year, one student from OSHS’s class of 2018 was accepted to Yale. That was Kunsel’s cousin, Kunsang Dorjee, who just completed his freshman year.
Dorjee was very happy about her acceptance, Kunsel said. He is a member of the Yale Himalayan Students Association, and Kunsel plans to join, too.
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