Plans for attending college in the United States were embedded in Madhav Nepal’s mind from the time he was in high school, though his upbringing in the rural village of Payekha located in Bhojpur District in eastern Nepal, didn’t exactly point in that direction.
Nepal is now an associate professor in the Department of Biology and Microbiology at South Dakota State University, researching stress responsive genes in soybeans, wheat and other plant species.
He grew up at the foothills of Mount Makalu, the fourth-highest peak in the world, which hosts Makalu-Barun National Park. “It is very lush, and there are rivers and streams running through villages,” Nepal said. His family of five, which includes his parents and two siblings, lived in a home in the Arun River Valley with no electricity or vehicles. “The elementary school I attended was an hour away from our home. We lived outside the village on a farm, where I also helped my parents with rice, corn, wheat, beans and millet. There was also a small seasonal airport which was a day’s walk away, and the nearest road was five-day walk from our home.”
Nepal and his siblings walked an hour each day to and from school. “I started first grade when I was 5 years old. My sister, who is five years older than me, would put me on her shoulders and carry me if I was too tired to walk,” he said, noting many children couldn’t afford shoes, but because of the stable, warm weather in the valley, it didn’t bother them much.
When it was time for middle and high school, Nepal initially walked four hours to reach the school. As days got shorter, it started to be a little too much and so he started living in a hostel. He went home over the weekends so he could get enough supplies for the following week. After graduating from high school, he flew to Kathmandu, the capital city. He described Kathmandu as a totally different world because it was more westernized than his hometown. In Kathmandu, Nepal received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tribhuvan University.
He then decided to come to the United States to further his education. He went to Iowa in January 2002 for another master’s degree.
“When my plane was about to land at the Waterloo airport, all I saw was snow everywhere,” Nepal said. “In my imagination, the United States would be skyscrapers everywhere. I must have been thinking of New York City and Los Angeles. I might have gotten such impression from TV. I envisioned people everywhere, busy streets with vehicles and crowded sidewalks with people hurrying to work in the morning. When I arrived in Cedar Falls, Iowa, I rarely saw people on the streets or even outside. I studied the culture and history of the U.S. while I was in Nepal, but I guess I didn’t study enough about the Midwest, particularly its winter.”
Nepal received a master’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa, and then went to Kansas State University for a doctorate degree.
Bringing culture to Brookings
Nepal, who received the Edward Patrick Hogan Award For Teaching Excellence at the 2016 Celebration of Faculty Excellence, arrived at State for the fall 2009 semester.
Since Nepal and his family moved to Brookings seven years ago, he said the town has incorporated many more traditional Asian food. “Now, a store on 6th Street and Hy-Vee carry many items,” Nepal said. “These days, most of our traditional food items are also available at Amazon and other online stores.”
Through the Nepalese Student Association (NeSa), Nepal and students stay connected to cultural traditions. “One of the big events they celebrate is the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Tihar in Nepal.”
Gitanjali Nanda Kafle, a microbiology doctorate student and NeSa president, said the group hosts many events each year, and gets together to celebrate traditional festivals. According to Nanda Kafle, Dashain is a large Nepalese festival the group celebrates each year. “It’s kind of like Christmas holiday celebrations where we get together and have good food, get blessings from our elders, build and form relationships, and try to create a feeling of home,” Nanda Kafle said.
The group also organizes football and volleyball tournaments with the other international organizations. “This summer, we are also going to start a group picnic,” Nanda Kafle said. “We work closely with other international organizations to put on fun activities just for fun. Our NeSa group also organizes the Adopt-a-Highway cleanup each year north of Brookings.”
During the Tihar holiday, Nepalese students carol at Nepal’s house, then stay for a traditional meal. “One tradition I started was inviting students to a traditional dinner at my home after graduation in May. We have around 75 Nepalese graduate students and 10 undergraduate students at SDSU,” he said. “Not everyone comes, but it is a great celebration and tradition to honor the paths the students have forged for themselves during their stay in Brookings.”
Making it home
Nepal hasn’t been to Nepal since 2002, but is excited to visit his family later this year. “Our parents visited us in Brookings two years ago,” Nepal said. “They enjoyed Brookings, but since they don’t speak English, they only could talk to my family and a few Nepalese students during their three-month stay. Their favorite place was McCrory Gardens. That was a peaceful place for them, and they walked through the gardens almost every morning.”
Nepal said his two children—a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader—love the Brookings School District. “The schools are one of the main reasons we are in Brookings,” Nepal said. “The environment is great for our children.”
Nanda Kafle, who also has two children—a kindergartner and a fifth-grader—said transitioning to Brookings and the new culture was difficult at first, but now, her family loves the community. “We know all of the Nepalese families in town, and because I’m president of NeSa, I meet all of the incoming families as well.” Nanda Kafle and her husband Arjun, a plant science and microbiology graduate student, had originally planned on returning to Nepal after completing their doctoral degrees, however, their children would like to stay in Brookings. “They love their friends and their schools, and I’ve made great friends here, too.”
According to Nepal, he enjoys and is highly appreciative of the freedom to explore his areas of professional expertise.
“The exploration and research I do probably wouldn’t be possible at universities in other areas of the country,” he said. “I am proud of running my own established research program where I get to work with highly motivated and talented graduate and undergraduate student researchers. I am very fortunate to be able to build collaborative relationships with faculty across campus. It is also worthwhile to bring up the work I do to improve STEM education through science teachers’ preparation and professional development activities with professors Larry Browning, Matt Miller, Sharon Vestal and others.”
Nepal said he came from a rural background and is glad to serve rural South Dakota teachers through STEM. “I see a lot of similarities between the people who live in rural areas here and where I grew up,” he said. “They are truly friendly and intimate.”