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GEAR UP counselors lend a hand to Nepali Student Sunita Bhujel
If you go for a weekend haircut or color at Supercuts in Williston, there’s a chance your stylist might be 19-year-old Sunita Bhujel, who talks brightly about her cosmetology training at the high school tech center, her first haircuts practiced on family members and her excitement about her upcoming business program at CCV.
But in the course of the typical salon-chair chitchat, you’d also hear a remarkable story, and probably leave with a newfound appreciation of the so-called “American Dream.”
Sunita was born in the Jhapa district of far eastern Nepal, on the Nepali Indian border. While Jhapa is fairly metropolitan by Nepali standards – it’s the fourth-largest municipality in the country, enjoys a higher-than-average literacy rate, and hosts many primary schools, high schools and colleges – Sunita’s memories of her early childhood are characterized by poverty. She remembers hauling buckets of water back to their house for cooking and bathing, and it was a regular occurrence for her father and uncle to be away for several days at a time in search of work.
“It was hard. It was very hard,” she recalls. Her first impressions of the United States, when she and her family arrived in North Carolina in 2012, were “the houses. My gosh, the houses,” she says, noting that her former house in Nepal was in very poor condition.
The family’s circumstances were made even more challenging by the fact that both Sunita’s mother and father are deaf. In fact, Sunita’s first language was Nepali Sign Language. And as Sunita recounts her first bewildering months of school in America as a second grader, it’s remarkable to realize that the complete lack of understanding she experienced in America initially is an everyday feeling for her parents, no matter what country they live in.
“That first day of school, I hated it, because I couldn’t understand anybody and they couldn’t understand me,” Sunita says. “It took me two to three years before I could really understand, and read and write, beyond simple phrases.” Fortunately for Sunita, there was an older Nepali girl in her school who befriended her and helped her along.
And fortunately for the family, one of her father’s brothers had emigrated a few years earlier, so they had a safe landing in North Carolina. “My uncle had a good job, and my parents wanted more educational and career opportunities for us,” she explains, referring to herself and her younger brother, now 13, who was only a year old when they left Nepal.
After five years in North Carolina, the extended Bhujel family decided to move to Vermont, which offered better medical care and support services for Sunita’s mom and dad. They now all live in Colchester. “We’re almost next door to each other, and we can help each other when we need it,” she says.
Her parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins are all incredibly proud of Sunita, who starts studying for her business degree at CCV this fall and is the first member of her family to go to college. “My family is so happy,” she says. “My parents always told me, ‘We didn’t get to go to school. You have good opportunities to go to college, and a lot of help to get there.’”
They encouraged her to take full advantage of all those opportunities – including the help she received from VSAC’s GEAR UP program during her senior year at Colchester High School. GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a federally funded grant program designed to increase the number of low-income students who go on to college. The bulk of the program’s services are delivered through one-on-one counseling sessions that help students complete their college admissions and financial aid applications.
VSAC outreach counselor Stevya Mukuzo, who works in the GEAR UP program, helped Sunita during her senior year. “Stevya came to our school and helped us through our applications. There were a lot of questions about money and taxes, and I could understand it all a lot better when she walked us through everything,” Sunita recalls. “She was always there to help us.”
Stevya notes that Sunita was one of the few New American students at Colchester High School and that she was always determined to work hard to overcome the challenges of being a newcomer to the ins and outs of the American educational system.
One of those details, in fact, almost kept Sunita from attending CCV, when part of her application wasn’t marked “received” in time for the deadline. Sunita was heartbroken. “I told one of my teachers, ‘I must have bad luck because I really want to go there!’” Fortunately, that teacher contacted the school on Sunita’s behalf. Her luck turned around, and she was soon accepted.
“Sunita is bright, humble, and ambitious at the same time. She does not give up easily, and she is passionate about being an entrepreneur and a business owner,” Stevya says.
Sunita’s already-cheerful voice brightens even more when she talks about her future career and her hope of one day opening her own salon.
“I feel really good about it, and I feel like I belong in the cosmetology field,” she says. She loved her two years of introductory training at the Center for Technology at Essex during high school, which took her from doing simple hairstyles on her mom and aunties at home to cutting and coloring for paying clients.
Now on the threshold of a successful business career, Sunita allows herself a moment to look back. “If I was still in Nepal, I definitely wouldn’t be here,” she says. “And one day when I have my own salon, I’ll be able to say, ‘Wow, I came this far.’”