Bhutanese refu­gee receives Gates scholarship


When Divesh Rizal laced up his roller skates during Senior Fun Day, the next few moments would speak volumes about the young man’s perseverance and determination.

Divesh Rizal
Divesh Rizal

“It was clear he had never been on skates before, but that didn’t matter,” said Marsha Williams, Rizal’s counselor at Parkdale High School in Prince George’s County. “He didn’t care that he fell. He kept on going. Then the kids were cheering. But that speaks to who Divesh is. He doesn’t give up.”

Rizal, who graduated from Parkdale High School on Friday, came to the United States less than two years ago with his father and two younger sisters, all refugees from Bhutan. He said he started at the school feeling alienated, as many immigrants do.

“I was lost; I had no friends,” he said. “Even after going to school for a couple of months, I was in a limited social circle.”

Rizal leaves Parkdale as a Gates Millennium Scholar and is headed to Vermont’s Middlebury College in the fall. He is one of six students in Prince George’s — and one of 1,000 minority students nationwide — to receive the Gates scholarship, a “good-through-graduation” scholarship to any college or university they choose.

He said he has his sights on becoming a genetic researcher.

Rizal said the turning point in his high school journey was participating in the Capitol One student banking program, which allowed him to work as a banker in a real student-run bank at the school.

“It helped me to relate,” said Rizal, 18, who lives in Riverdale. “I come from a different way of life. This helped guide me.”

Part of Rizal’s “different” upbringing involved living in the small huts of a Bhutanese refu­gee camp in Nepal, where he had to venture out each day to get water, and where there was no air conditioning or heat.

He learned English at a boarding school his parents operate. He said he still struggles with the language but watches television and reads Time magazine to help him balance what he calls “formal” and “informal” speech.

“I try to catch the words, the type of combinations of words,” he said.

When Rizal isn’t reading, he enjoys hiking and traveling.

He also gained an appreciation for tennis after trying out for his high school’s team.

And he credits Liberty’s Promise, an after-school program at Parkdale that helps immigrant students learn about their community and their new country, with expanding his horizons by introducing him to “notable figures” in the community, such as County Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park).

“He was a strong leader for his peers,” said Allison Bouley, a program officer at Liberty’s Promise. “He was always the first person to ask questions and then to approach a guest speaker. . . . But there is also a lightheartedness about him.”

Williams said she imagines that Rizal’s determination comes from his life experiences and his strong family ties.

“He is one of those students, if there is an obstacle that arises in a class, he doesn’t shy away from it, he chips away at it until he figures out an answer,” Williams said. “A lot of our students come from other countries. It takes them a little longer, from my experience. But it was like he didn’t miss a beat.”

Rizal said he is looking forward to the next chapter, attending college and living in the Vermont mountains.

“I’ve lived in the mountains; mountains are a part of my life,” he said.

And the New England winters?

“I’m very excited about seeing snow,” Rizal said. “I want to experience everything.

Reproduced from The Washington Post