In the Land of Opportunity

Ranju Dhungana’s life has taken her from a refugee camp in Nepal to a prestigious U.S. State Department scholarship, via UND

Ranju Dhungana, seen here on the UND campus, is the University’s latest recipient of a U.S. government-sponsored Critical Language Scholarship. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

From his college professor’s perch in New England in the early 1800s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

And from her vantage in a Nepali refugee camp in 2009, nearly two centuries after and a world away from Longfellow’s time, young Ranju Dhungana proved the truth of the American poet’s saying. For Dhungana, who spoke Nepali and was born in that refugee camp, music was what connected her to Hindi, the primary language of neighboring India.

Then, when she moved to Grand Forks, N.D., at 11 years old, music once again helped Dhungana get a handle on a language – this time, English – and later, master it.

Now, Dhungana is UND’s latest recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship, a competitive summer-abroad language program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. This summer, despite the challenges of the coronavirus, she hopes to reconnect with Hindi, the language she had started to learn in her youth.

The base of knowledge and language skill provided by the scholarship program could be a launchpad for the senior’s intended career in medicine.

Communication and healing

The psychology and honors major’s inspiration to take a pre-health emphasis at UND was long in the making, albeit through tragedy.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to go into medicine,” Dhungana said.

Life in the refugee camp was difficult for her family. Her parents fled from Bhutan amid civil unrest and violence, and necessities such as electricity and clean water were scarce. Medical services, both in supplies and personnel, were especially lacking.

So, when her father suddenly fell ill, his affliction proved to be fatal. His death resulted due to lack of antivenom or antitoxin for a snake bite.

Dhungana remembers those times and the pivotal role that communication played. Today, in pursuing the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), and, in turn, picking up where she left off with Hindi, Dhungana hopes to be able to communicate with patients in their native language.

“My goal is to be able to speak with people who would normally require an interpreter,” she said. “People feel more secure in having that connection with a nurse or doctor, and they’re more open to talking about things.”

CLS goes online

Dhungana thought she would be going to the northern state of Rajasthan, in India, for a summer of language and cultural immersion. There, she would have been living with a host family while covering a year of language coursework in a 10-week period.

For a time, it seemed like the coronavirus brought the entire program to a halt.

“Two days before my passport arrived, they decided to cancel the program,” Dhungana said.

This was hard for not only Dhungana to hear, but also for Yee Han Chu, UND’s fellowship opportunities coordinator. Chu had been working with Dhungana nearly every step of the way. Getting the passport delivery expedited had been a scramble all its own.

“Ranju was really quick in saying, ‘It’s okay,’” Chu recalled. After that announcement, CLS coordinators made it seem as though the recipients would simply have to apply again the following year. But then, around the end of the spring semester, an announcement came that the 10-week language courses would be offered online.

“I asked Ranju, ‘You’re going to say yes … right?’” Chu laughed.

“What’s being offered now isn’t the full experience of the CLS, where you’re learning culture beyond the classroom and going through complete immersion,” Chu continued. “But it’s a way to navigate the pandemic.”

Dhungana started classes on Monday, June 29, and the coursework will continue through Aug. 21.

Resilience and gratitude

Chu told Dhungana, and tells other students applying for high-profile scholarships, that applying for a scholarship is just as valuable as taking part in a program or fellowship.

“You’re going to learn so much about yourself by going through that application experience,” Chu said.

In her application essays, Dhungana reflected on her upbringing in a Bhutanese-Nepalese camp, her love of Hindi music, and the challenges of coming to the United States at 11, barely understanding English.

“It was an intense process, and I didn’t realize that until I needed to express myself in 300 words or less,” Dhungana said. “Yee Han was helpful in getting me straight to the point.

After being born in a refugee camp in Nepal, Ranju Dhungana moved to Grand Forks at age 11, graduated from Red River High School and now attends UND. Photo by Shawn Schill/UND Today.

“I talked about how coming from a different country requires flexibility as you try to assimilate to a culture. It made me reflect on my background, and what it’s taken to get to where I am.”

Chu, who has gotten to know Dhungana and her story, is impressed by her resilience and how many challenges she has overcome to excel at UND.

“She has gone through so many challenges and cultural adjustments to get to this point in her life, and she’s pursuing something that is so ambitious,” Chu said. “I mean anyone who wants to become a doctor is very ambitious, but she wants to layer that with language skills and a deep cultural competence.”

Dhungana, in speaking with UND Today, displayed another quality that Chu noticed early on: gratitude.

“I’m so grateful for the fact we have people like Yee Han, otherwise I don’t think I would have known about this scholarship. And I also wouldn’t have known about it if someone from Washington hadn’t come to speak about it at our school,” Dhungana said. “I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities that I’ve had through UND.”

Poised to succeed

As she starts her new routine for online coursework, going online from 8 a.m. to noon each weekday, Dhungana wants to gain solid footing in Hindi.

To this day, she still enjoys the Hindi songs that provided an immense sense of wonder during her childhood. It is music that has taught her the small amount of Hindi she already knows.

“Even if it’s an equivalent to ‘level one’ with the language, I just want to be able to learn,” she said. “I’m hoping to be able to write, or be able to read a song lyric. I’m also hoping I’ll be able to do more than that through this CLS experience.”

Additionally, Dhungana has been using the language program Rosetta Stone to accentuate her knowledge, and has been part of UND’s Indian Association, where she has been able to interact with native speakers. Both her first language, Nepali, and Hindi use Sanskrit script, so she is optimistic about being able to succeed.

“Even though it’s going to be virtual, instead of in India, I’m really grateful for CLS,” Dhungana said. “I’m looking forward to what’s ahead, and being able to learn a language during this pandemic is going to help me in my future.”