Kalapana Biswa enjoys learning about behavioral sciences in her Public Health classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), but the campus architecture is what makes her especially proud to be a UNO student.
“When I go to school, I feel so proud because our school is made of concrete and bricks,” Biswa said. “In my country, schools were made of bamboo and dirt.”
More than five years ago, Biswa was living in Nepal. She went to school in small bamboo buildings as a young girl. When she got older, her mother couldn’t afford the tuition and she had to drop out.
In 2013, her family decided to make the more than 7,000 mile move from Nepal to Nebraska in search of “a better life.”
“My cousins came here before us, and they told us it was a really good place. If we work hard, we can succeed,” Biswa said.
Biswa went to Benson High School where she was eager to make friends and find her place in her new community, but the language barrier made it hard for her to connect to her classmates.
“I felt very lonely in class,” Biswa said. “I had no friends to talk to. When I spoke to them, I had to repeat my words twice because I did not speak English well. Some students simply ignored me and did not respond back, which made me miss my friends in Nepal.”
Biswa stayed positive. Each day, she tried to memorize more and more English words. She read books and looked definitions up in Google. She realized she “had to spend my whole life here, and I would learn more English day after day, so why should I put myself down?”
Biswa graduated high school with excellent grades and earned a scholarship as an incoming student at UNO. She joined Project Achieve, a program created to support first-generation college students.
“Project Achieve helped me navigate campus, buy books, do my homework and find a home and friends on campus,” Biswa said.
Connie Sorensen-Birk, a Project Achieve advisor, said she knew Biswa was destined for success the first day she met her.
“We were at a service project for Benson Plant Rescue, and they wanted us to dig up these huge bunches of tall grass to move to another part of the site,” Sorensen-Birk said. “Everyone was struggling and most people gave up, but there Kalpana was, with a shovel bigger than her, digging up the grass the rest of us couldn’t… She persists.”
Benson Plant Rescue isn’t the only service project Biswa has helped with. Sorensen-Birk said it’s rare for her to turn down a service opportunity. Biswa and her fellow Project Achieve students have already reached 1,000 service hours so far this year. Biswa also donates money to a school in Nepal and donated to the Nebraska flood relief.
“It makes me really wonder if it isn’t the case that people who have experience hardships are more willing to reach out to prevent others from having to experience hardships,” Sorensen-Birk said.
Biswa also helps immigrant families in her church community make doctor appointments and complete homework. “I’ve overcome obstacles, and I want to help others,” she said. “I have so many opportunities here, so I feel like I have to do something for others.”
Biswa plans to return to Nepal after she graduates to help increase people’s access to healthcare. “In Nepal, there are so many air problems, water problems,” she said. “Whenever people need help, I feel like I should help them if I am able to.”
Sorensen-Birk is confident Biswa’s persistence will enable her to move back to Nepal after graduation, but even if she was unable to go, Sorensen-Birk said, “she will and already has made Nebraska a better place.”
“She wants to change people’s lives,” Sorensen-Birk said. “She has said to me, ‘I want to be kind and people to know I’m kind.’”