Overcoming Change and Uncertainty
U of I student’s dedication to learning brings him a long way from home
When Bishal Thapa first arrived in Idaho he assumed he would encounter tall buildings, large groups of people and cars everywhere. Growing up in Nepal, Thapa harbored the perception that the United States was similar to what he’d seen on the big screen of New York or Los Angeles.
Arriving in Moscow to begin his studies in agricultural education from the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) and biological engineering with an agricultural emphasis from the College of Engineering quickly dispelled him of that notion.
“They don't show Idaho in movies, they only show big cities,” Thapa said. “I flew to the Moscow-Pullman Airport and all I could see were patches of big round things everywhere on brown land.
“I was thinking the whole time, ‘Am I going to the right place? Is my university just one building in the middle of the field?’” Thapa said.
Fortunately, Thapa learned at a young age that change and uncertainty are guaranteed elements of life. How a person manages uncertainty — whether they choose to overcome change or resist it — all comes down to a person’s attitude.
Thapa grew up in Jharuwarasi, Nepal, a small city about four miles from Kathmandu, with a population of just over 3,000.
He said it was sometimes a challenge for his parents to provide for the family.
“My parents did their best,” Thapa said. “Every time I talk to my parents about my childhood, they always say we had a lot of problems but worked them out.”
While uncertainty dominated Thapa’s childhood, his parents continuously modeled resilience. They taught Thapa to thrive in the face of adversity.
Thapa’s parents sent him to boarding school after the third grade, where he joined his older brother and studied for three years. Their father was a police officer, and — as the end of the Nepalese Civil War was nearing — terrorists began targeting the families of security personnel. Home was no longer safe.
“It was special for me to go to a place that was protected and that also had a better education,” Thapa said.
Learning the Culture
When he arrived in Moscow, Thapa was overwhelmed with joy and excitement, but said he soon began to feel isolated.
“I didn't know anything about culture shock; I didn't know people can feel like they're different,” Thapa said.
While exploring the city the day after his arrival, Thapa remembers walking down the sidewalk and being greeted by an older man.
“I was thinking; how does he know me if I just came here yesterday? Should I reply? Is it rude not to reply? I think that person could see that I was really confused,” he said.
Sure enough, the next individual who passed also offered Thapa a warm greeting.
“I realized this is the culture in Moscow — you greet people when you're walking, which people do not do in Nepal,” he said. “So I started doing that on my third day.”
McKenna Ford, an agricultural education student in CALS who works closely with Thapa on research projects, said his outgoing personality caught her attention when the two first met.
“He was saying hello to everyone and making sure everyone knew he is willing to learn,” Ford said. “Working so closely with him is like working with a sibling that I don’t actually argue with. He is such a bright light in the Ag Ed department.”
The International Programs Office (IPO) at U of I helped Thapa form his initial community and gave him the network he needed to embark on his academic journey.
“They are really amazing,” Thapa said. “Even when I was in Nepal they were constantly checking in and updating me on the next step and would answer all of my questions. They made us feel like family.”
Although Thapa said he still felt uncomfortable in his new environment, his experience confronting change and uncertainty throughout his life helped him to move forward.
“You have to accommodate and adapt to change,” he said. “Once I reminded myself of that, I started climbing up.”
A Second Home
Thapa applied to five universities in the United States, but chose U of I because of its recruitment efforts, and because of its agricultural education program.
He knew from a young age, after being raised on a farm where his family grew rice, corn and mustard, that he wanted to teach agriculture.
Thapa is thankful for the family atmosphere he has found in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, and said people there have helped him in his new home. He is especially grateful for two mentors, Assistant Professor Kasee Smith and Associate Professor Jeremy Falk.
“If I become famous, the first thing I have to do is talk about those two people,” Thapa said. “They have helped me find myself and my strengths. I have this attitude where I try to learn everything I can from them.”
Smith said Thapa’s eagerness to learn and his ability to exude positivity is inspirational.
“The way he approaches life is something that I wish we could capture,” Smith said. “Having that person in our department is a game-changer. He doesn’t realize how much he’s touching lives; it’s why he’ll be a great teacher, it’s why he’ll be a great leader, it’s why he’ll take the next step and be something great in his life.”
Leaving an Imprint
Now well into his educational voyage, Thapa has learned to embrace the American culture and tries to make an impact everywhere he can.
He will serve as president of U of I’s Collegiate FFA club in 2019 after finishing his term as treasurer.
In addition, Thapa researches grit and optimism among high school FFA students and remains an active member in both the Nepalese Student Association and the American Society of Agriculture and Biological Engineers Club. He also works with IPO as an international office ambassador, where he feels he is returning the favor by giving incoming international students the same support he received.
As a member of the Grand Challenge Scholars program in the College of Engineering, Thapa recently received a $3,500 award to conduct research in an effort to solve one of the 14 grand challenges of engineering in the 21st century, developed by the National Academy of Engineering. His challenge focus area is managing the nitrogen cycle, and his research will examine the production of nitrogen-rich fertilizer using dielectric plasma technology.
After graduating in spring 2020, Thapa plans to return to Nepal and open a school to teach children about agriculture and vocational education. He said agricultural workers in Nepal are not seen as valuable members of society — a perception he hopes to change.
“I read something once that said, ‘I'm not fighting with people — I'm fighting with what people think and it’s much harder fighting people's perceptions than fighting with people,’” he said. “It’s really hard to change how people think.”
Thapa is up for the challenge.
Article by Jean Parrella, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in January 2019