UND Today

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Born in a refugee camp and blind since age 6, Menuka Rai now is a graduate of UND

And that’s just the beginning, as Rai is determined to help others via pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy

Image courtesy of Menuka Rai

Last Wednesday, on the other end of the phone line, Menuka Rai, whom family and friends call Jyoti, sounded upbeat, eager to share her story only three days before graduating from the University of North Dakota.

“My sister-in-law and my sister are actually planning a family gathering,” Rai said of her plans to celebrate the end of her undergraduate career, which culminated in a psychology degree and the completion of the pre-physical therapy curriculum at the University. “I’m excited about that.”

In the summer, Rai plans to take the GRE, a standardized test that serves as an admissions requirement for the physical therapy doctorate program at UND. To sit for the GRE, most other students have to simply register online through the Educational Testing Service, which administers a slate of examinations.

Because she is blind, Rai had to seek accommodations to take the exam, in addition to searching for prep materials in Braille. This took some time, exchanging emails with ETS staff and clearing out what she described as initial miscommunication about her needs.

Today, Rai laughs about it. Even when recalling bigger ordeals in her life, Rai remains sanguine, her tone seeped with optimism.

Life in a refuge camp

The youngest of four siblings, Rai was born in a Nepalese refugee camp. Her family arrived at the camp in 1992. In August 2013, with the help of immigration organizations as well as her uncles and aunts who already resided here, Rai and her siblings relocated to Grand Forks and began adjusting to life in the U.S.

In the two decades they spent in the camp, where necessities such as water, electricity and healthcare were either in short supply or non-existent, tumult and trouble enshrouded Rai’s family.

When she was six, Rai lost her vision to retinal cancer. “I had to go through so many treatments,” she said. Rai says she has made peace with it, declaring, “When I recall my childhood, I had an easier time than my parents did when they first came to the refugee camp. There were organizations and family and friends who were helping us.”

But the lack of adequate healthcare in the camp claimed lives, including her father’s.

“I lost my father to a heart attack, and we couldn’t do anything for him,” she said. “I lost my cousin due to a minor injury, and my grandpa.”

These losses inspired Rai to pursue a career in health care. At first, she wanted to be a doctor. Then, one day, as a Red River high schooler on a campus tour of UND, Rai learned about physical therapy (PT).

“There was a person presenting about PT,” she recalled. “The reason why it fascinated me so much is that it is non-invasive. There is no medication involved. I thought that through PT, I could still achieve my dream of helping people.”

Life on campus

According to a Grand Forks Herald article from 2013, Rai was the first blind student to learn English as a second language in the school district. By the time she enrolled at UND, her command of English had substantially improved. Through the North Dakota Vision Services, she had worked on navigating the world independently in high school.

“It has been a pleasure to witness her growth. She is an inspiration to others who are visually impaired and really everyone,” said Paul Olson, superintendent of North Dakota Vision Services/ School for the Blind. “She has encountered numerous barriers, but she is always positive as she either overcomes them or goes around them.”

Yet, like many other university freshmen, Rai was anxious about life as a college student.

“As a blind student, I was really scared at first,” Rai said. “But as time passed, I became more comfortable with traveling around the campus.”

Through the North Dakota Vision Services, Rai had an orientation and mobility instructor, Tori Johnson, who retired from the Grand Forks School District as director of special education in 2013. Before the start of each semester, Johnson would take Rai to campus so that she could learn the locations of her classrooms in advance. Rai calls Johnson a friend.

“I have never met anyone quite like Jyoti, and I say this with the deepest respect and admiration,” Johnson said. “Jyoti approaches every new challenge with positivity and courage.  I have never witnessed her to show any self-pity or anger at having to do things differently.  She demonstrated only a ‘can do’ attitude, grace, kindness and a sense of humor.”

For her courses at UND, Rai had to have a lot of study materials translated into Braille. Some topics such as statistical formulas and signs proved harder to communicate into Braille, she said. Despite the challenges, Rai said her UND professors were understanding and eager to help.

A newly minted UND graduate, Rai is proud she could fulfil her father’s wish for his children to obtain good educations.

“I am really proud that I followed his dream,” she said. “I accomplished something, instead of being afraid and limiting myself to certain things. I hope my story reaches someone and encourages them to pursue their education, because I have seen students with blindness think that higher education is too scary or too overwhelming.

“People who are blind and people from different backgrounds can also study; they can achieve; they can do everything they dream of.”