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Refugee to Vt. wins scholarship to Georgetown

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A local student raised in a refugee camp in Nepal has graduated from the Vermont Academy of Science and Technology program and has won a full scholarship to attend Georgetown University.

Indra Acharya, whose parents were exiled from the Kingdom of Bhutan, has had a markedly different experience from most of his fellow students. Acharya, now living in Shelburne with his mother, has used the experience as motivation to pursue his education.

“My parents, they were kicked out of the country and I was born in a refugee camp and grew up in there. A refugee camp experience, I don’t think I could explain,” he said.

Indra Acharya (Picture courtesy: Rutlandherald)
Indra Acharya
(Picture courtesy: Rutlandherald)

Things that most American students take for granted were hard to come by for Acharya and his family. “We had to struggle to find food to eat, to have a place to live in,” he said.

But Acharya, despite his circumstances, said he was always taught to “dream big” and educate himself.

“My parents always raised me to pursue a good education because they thought that education was the only way to succeed. That’s what they told me all the time. My parents always told me to dream big. That was one of the biggest experiences that I had,” he said. “My father died like two years ago, but my father used to tell me to dream big. That’s all he told me. Dream big. And I asked him, ‘What is the purpose of dreaming big when I don’t have anything?’ He told me that hard work, motivation and all those things will pay off and it does not cost money to dream.”

He resettled in Winooski in 2012 after the death of his father. He began attending Winooski High School, and was encouraged to take tech classes to learn a trade.

“I was told by many people that I should start working immediately rather than thinking about going to college. There were many people who tried to push me to go to work, saying you can be a great dishwasher,” he said. “Those were the motivations that I got from people here. I was never told to go to school.”

But Acharya said he wanted more. He eventually enrolled in the VAST program at Vermont Technical College in Randolph his senior year after learning about it from a guidance counselor. VAST is an independent, accredited high school program that allows high school seniors to take a full year of college-level classes while completing their high school education.

“I think the VAST program is really, really a great program,” he said. “I think the VAST program will help a lot, because in the state of Vermont we have a lot of people who … are really not thinking about education. They don’t think a college education, paying so much money, is worth it. I personally would not want to go to college by paying so much money. It’s really expensive now.”

Acharya excelled, posting a near-perfect GPA. He was accepted to Georgetown and earned a full scholarship to the school. And then he learned of another scholarship he earned — the Gates Millennium Scholars program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was established in 1999 and awards 1,000 students across the country each year to promote academic excellence and to provide opportunities for outstanding minority students.

Acharya is just the second Vermonter to win the award.

The award was no surprise to those who have watched Acharya grow as a student, including Sue Polen, head of the VAST program at VTC.

“He grew up in a refugee camp. They had nothing — dirt floors, dirt roads, standing in line every day for meals,” she said. “He’s a pretty incredible young man.”

“He would turn in two papers for every assignment just in case one wasn’t an A,” Polen added.

Acharya’s leadership qualities were evident from a young age. He said he worked to rally his community for more children’s rights, and advocated for children to travel from the camp to see places like the capital of Nepal.

At Georgetown, where he heads in July, Acharya will study politics and government and hopes to obtain a law degree. But he doesn’t hope to just practice law.

“My aim is not to become a lawyer. I want to become an advocate for social justice and I want to run for public service office in Vermont. That’s my aim. My dad told me to aim big, so yeah, I’ll run for Senate one day. That’s what I think,” Acharya said. “I will be back to Vermont, for sure.”

Acharya said he knows he has an opportunity to achieve his goals and is looking to continue working hard and making the right choices to do so.

“I was a political refugee. I suffered. I didn’t have food to eat. I didn’t have a place to go and play with people. I had two options. One option was to play terrorist army games … and be a person who wants to fight and create conflict. Or, I could be a peaceful person, not say anything, just explore the nature. Just sit there and look at the never-ending sky or the flying butterflies or birds. I chose the second option.”

The story was originally published in the Rutlandherald

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