Sophomore from Nepal Helps New International Students Feel at Home

Traveling thousands of miles away from home to a country you’ve never visited and attending a college you’ve never seen except online would be a daunting task for anyone. Yet that was the challenge that Grishma Bhattarai ’20 boldly accepted when she made the trek from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Hollins a little over a year ago.

“No matter how confident I looked, at the end of the day I was a little scared,” Bhattarai admits, looking back. But today, the economics and mathematics double major is thriving, both in and out of the classroom, and despite a demanding schedule, one of her highest priorities is assisting other international students after they start their education at Hollins.

“When I came to Hollins, I immediately met people who knew my name and who had taken the time to learn about me, my interests, and my likes and dislikes before I had even arrived,” Bhattarai recalls. “They created a space of comfort for me. I felt I needed to do the same for other international students when they came to campus. I wanted to become their friend and confidant so that I could help them during their first year’s journey at Hollins.”

Bhattarai is a peer mentor with Hollins’ International Student Orientation Program (ISOP), which prepares students from abroad for living and studying at the university. “For international students it can be difficult because they are coming from so many different cultures. Breaking the ice with them at the very beginning is important to get to know more about them and where they’re from. We talk to them about culture shock and help them become familiar with what will be new to them in America.”

What students should expect both academically and on a personal level at Hollins is the second focus of Bhattarai and other peer mentors. “One the biggest objectives of being a peer mentor is sharing your experience as a first-year student. I talk with new students about what they can do to succeed academically and I’m also open about the mistakes that I made so that they can avoid them.”

ISOP isn’t limited to just a few days at the outset of the new academic session. Peer mentors remain dedicated to new international students throughout their entire first year. “During the fall and spring, we get together for weekly dinners and talk about the classes they are taking, something new they are experiencing, or some concern they are having so that we can tackle the problem together,” Bhattarai explains. “ISOP, especially for Hollins, is a way to build a family within the campus community. There’s this safe space where students can express their anxieties and we can help them.”

Bhattarai believes the best advice she can give to an international student who is considering coming to America to continue their education is to “be open minded, be open to new experiences, and be open to meeting new people. The undergraduate experience is going to be really different from what you had in high school, especially considering the fact you’re also going to be immersed in a completely different culture.”

That attitude served Bhattarai well. Even though before coming to Hollins she had spent her entire educational life studying in an all-girls’ convent school and knew she wanted to attend a women’s college, she says she was pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere Hollins offered.

“Nepal’s education system does not allow you to try new subjects. But Hollins is this amazing liberal arts college where you can study different subjects before you have to actually choose your major. I never thought I’d be taking a dance history class and learning about Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan. I never thought I would study calculus and apply it in my daily life.

“Hollins is a place where there are no boundaries. You can do whatever you want to do.”

In addition to her work as an ISOP peer mentor, Bhattarai is vice chair of Hollins’ academic policy board and serves on the university’s Honor Court. She provides campus tours for prospective students and in June was part of the staff for Reunion 2017. She’s participating in the Honors Seminar Program and is presently investigating internship and research opportunities for next summer, including one offered at MIT.

“I want to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and Hollins has been shaping me for that,” Bhattarai says. “I’m planning to do study abroad in Italy during my junior year and that’s going to enrich my experience as a global citizen.” In her doctorate work, she intends to “look at the economy and living standards of rural, struggling communities and developing countries from a women’s studies and developmental economics perspective.”

Another factor that was impactful for Bhattarai during her first year at Hollins was the inspiration she received from President Nancy Gray, who retired this summer. Now, because of her international background, new president Pareena Lawrence is providing Bhattarai’s sophomore year with a singular resonance.

“Seeing a president who is similar to you in so many ways, it gives you a special drive to do better. Having a woman of color in the biggest position on campus, someone I can look up to in a genuine manner, it makes me feel that maybe someday I can reach that position, too. I’m so thankful for that. That’s something Hollins is giving me this year.”