Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
On most days, Shahiba Bhattarai can peek outside her window and soak in the views of Camelback Mountain. But it wasn’t long ago that she peered outside her window in Kathmandu, Nepal, to get a glimpse of the colossal, snow-hugged Himalayas.
Imagine being immersed in such breathtaking grandeur and then being told you are moving far away from all that wonder.
You will go somewhere different. You will be somewhere different.
You will be.
“I want you to all take a moment and imagine with me, try to think back and remember what life was like when you were 9. Imagine you wake up for school one day and you’re told you’ll be moving across the world to another country, leaving behind friends and the community you grew up with, even leaving behind the very people that raised you, only to be thrown into a whole new life.
“This was my reality,” said Bhattarai on Friday afternoon from the stage of GCU Arena, where she was the student speaker for the afternoon Winter Commencement ceremony and gingerly wrapped the audience in the warm blanket of her unique immigrant story. (See slideshow/video here).
Tiny North Pole, Alaska, population 2,000-plus, was nothing like the promise of America. She imagined towering skyscrapers and big-city lights and hustle and bustle. She imagined the land of dreams.
Instead, she found a small town, small shops, dim streetlights decorated like candy canes and streets with names like Santa Claus Lane. She spied moose running around town and felt frigid in the minus-60-degree weather.
She also had to adjust to life with her parents.
Her mom was an international student studying in Connecticut who landed a pharmacy internship in the small, Christmas-themed Alaskan town of North Pole, just 14 miles from Fairbanks.
It was the recession and jobs were slim, so it was North Pole, Alaska, for her parents, who moved to America while Bhattarai remained in Nepal with her grandparents. It would be five long years before the family reunited.
The move wasn’t easy.
Bhattarai struggled, having to learn a whole new culture, appreciate new foods and speak a new language. She found herself muting her differences and masking her individuality to try and fit in.
“Early on in school, I struggled and quickly fell behind,” she said during her Commencement speech. “Teachers questioned how far I’d make it in life, and peers reminded me of my academic weaknesses.”
But she persevered and recalls that day, during a college fair, when she saw two smiling ladies representing GCU at one of the tables. A Discover GCU trip later, after spying a sign that said, “Find Your Purpose,” that’s exactly what she did.
“I just really LOVED the community at GCU,” said Bhattarai just a few hours before giving her Commencement speech. “I loved the welcoming atmosphere. Everybody is super friendly. I got that sense right off the bat. … I think the people are really what drove me to come to GCU.
“One of my best friends, to this day, I met her over Discover GCU, and we still are really close. We live together to this day.”
Bhattarai, a people-person if there ever was one, anchored herself even more after joining the Multicultural, Diversity and Inclusion Office (now the Department of Diversity and Inclusion) as the office coordinator. She spoke at Culture Fest earlier this year about how rich the campus is in its culture and that how that diversity and those differences “make us who we are.”
During her time at GCU, Bhattarai found friends and learned to embrace what makes her different – what makes her unique. In the process, she found herself – and her purpose – at GCU, just as she was meant to do.
Bhattarai discovered her love of human resources, or “people operations,” which is something she had been doing all along in her work with the Department of Diversity and Inclusion.
She also was a student worker for two years in Grand Canyon Education’s Human Resources Department and served as an HR intern for PetSmart in Phoenix.
“It was a very competitive vetting process to be selected for that internship,” she said.
Her most memorable project was competing in a “Shark Tank”-like challenge to pitch a product by a minority-owned small business to PetSmart. Teams of eight put together the marketing, buying plans, product placement design and more.
“We found out, once our internship was over, that our small business got selected, and so it was a really cool opportunity, and the products are going to be placed at all 1,650 PetSmart stores across the country.
“It’s kind of a big deal for this small business to get their first big break,” said Bhattarai, who also interned in people operations with a travel agency in Scottsdale called Arrivia.
After graduation, she will be embarking on her first post-graduation job in human resources, working in people operations for Tempe-based Persefoni.
Bhattarai said her time with the Department of Diversity and Inclusion prepared her for her career as she continues to embrace her purpose.
“Working within the Multicultural, Diversity and Inclusion Office, it gave me a chance to meet people from all different walks of life and backgrounds, and I think that kind of better equipped me when I came into the workforce,” she said.
In the end, Bhattarai said her jarring move from Nepal to North Pole to the Sonoran Desert and the Valley of the Sun was not what she expected. But it was “just what I needed to be put on the path to get where I’m standing today.”
She went somewhere different.
She became someone different.
And she has finally embraced all those differences.
Her purpose, she said, “It really stems from moving across the world and essentially being an immigrant and seeing the importance of valuing people at their core and what makes them who they are. It stems from using that and practicing that in my career so that people know that they are valued and accepted, no matter what their background looks like.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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