Getting a master’s degree is not easy. It takes strong reading comprehension, good writing skills and an ability to grasp very complex theories and concepts. Now, imagine doing that in a foreign country, in a foreign language, after being forced from your home country and living for 20 years in refugee camps.
Krishna Dhakal did just that. He graduated in December with a Master of Business Administration from Bellarmine while also raising a family and working as a high school science teacher and walked in Commencement exercises in May.
Dhakal was born in the countryside in Bhutan, a small country in the Eastern Himalayas that shares borders with China and India. His family was Nepali, an ethnic group that had been in Bhutan since the 1600s. In the mid-20th century, the government began enforcing a “One Nation, One People” policy, and in the 1990s, the Nepali were forced to dress like the Bhutanese and speak the Bhutanese language: Dzongkha.
“My father was put in prison. Four of my uncles were murdered, and both of my old grandfathers were imprisoned for no reason,” Dhakal said. “I, along with my siblings, were taken out of school. I went nearly two years without schooling. [The] Army used to come to houses especially during nights and assault people physically, rape people and take anything you have, valuables like money or gold. We spent a couple nights in the forest near our home to save our lives and stay away from government harm.”
His father was released from prison but forced to sign the rights to his farm over to the government. The family was given a month to leave. When leaving, they had to sign a “Voluntary Migration Form” and have their photo taken. “The government took a smiling picture as proof that our family left the country happily and voluntarily,” he said. “Bhutanese people who did not sign the form … were killed or lifelong imprisoned. This was my childhood in Bhutan, where I was raised in fear.”
The family walked for four days to the Indian border, where his father was able to rent a truck to take the family to a refugee camp in Nepal. The camp had no clean water and little edible food, and 100,000 people lived in close quarters. “My grandmother and I contracted malaria, severe dysentery,” Dhakal said. “We survived. At least 60 people used to die every day on average.”
Somehow, even in refugee camps, Dhakal was able to learn with the help of volunteer teachers. As an adult, he went to North Bengal University in India and earned a bachelor’s degree in science with zoology honors. He began teaching in Nepal schools and as a volunteer in refugee camps. He was admitted to Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, where he earned a master’s degree in science. He married a woman he met in the camp and applied to come to the United States. After a year, the paperwork came through and his family was re-settled in Louisville through Catholic Charities. He worked several entry-level jobs, struggling to care for his family, which also included his disabled parents, his two children and a younger sister.
He began working as a substitute teacher with Jefferson County Public Schools, then eventually got certified to teach. Now he’s a science teacher at Newcomer Academy, the school for foreign students when they first arrive into the JCPS system.
‘Impressed with his tenacity’
In his constant quest for knowledge, he started Bellarmine’s MBA program and was awarded a 50 percent scholarship. At first, he took online classes, four at a time. But he struggled to keep up with the other students while working and caring for his family. After one semester, he switched to evening classes, where he could interact more with instructors and maintain a more manageable pace.
“Initially it was very hard. I did not have a business background; I had a science and teaching background,” Dhakal said. “And English is not my first language, so English is hard. Then the grad-level classes were very rapid … being a parent, teacher and a student, it was very tough. But I had a lot of struggle in my life. I didn’t lose my hope. I kept going, getting help.”
The professors at Bellarmine helped Dhakal when he needed some extra instruction. He bought some undergrad-level books to read and catch up with the business concepts. “I had a mission. I had to get an MBA. I never lost my hope. Initially, I was kind of frustrated that I couldn’t meet the expectation of the group [on group projects], but I had a very optimistic view that if I keep going, I will be successful one day. The professors, especially Dr. Sharon Kerrick, they kept encouraging me, and I kept going, and eventually I did it.”
Dr. Kerrick, dean of the Rubel School of Business, didn’t hesitate to help Dhakal. “I was so impressed with his tenacity and focus to progress and excel,” she said. “Mr. Dhakal succeeded by using ALL the resources available to him—the Student Success Center, meeting one-on-one with his faculty, working closely with his classmates. All around him he had support, and he continued to push himself time and time again … and when he got discouraged or didn’t understand something he would come and talk with me or the other folks at the business school. We think highly of him and his leadership and are excited to see what the future holds for him!”
For now, Dhakal will stay in his teaching position at JCPS. Eventually, he wants to work in human resources to help minorities and immigrants find jobs in the school system because navigating the paperwork and legal issues was a challenge for him. He wants to make the process easier for others. “I struggled a lot. I had to navigate a lot to find the right place, even though I had a degree. If I can get that position, I will be useful to help people who are new here.”
Dhakal hopes one day to return to Bhutan to visit his family’s home. The current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is a Harvard graduate and has instituted reforms. But despite the changes, it’s still not safe for Dhakal to return. But his positive attitude helps him look forward to the future for his Bhutanese-American family. His advice to those struggling with life’s setbacks: “Be courageous, be positive, take challenges, keep struggling and one day you will be successful. I believe in hard work. Hard work always pays off. As I am a teacher, I have to be a role model so that my children can learn, my students can follow.”
By Lisa Hornung
Lisa Hornung, a native of Louisville, has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in history from Eastern Kentucky University.