Chapter 4 – January 1989

Mahabir Pun and his friend Dhanajaya arrived in Kearney, Nebraska in January 1989…anticipated but unannounced. Dr. Skov described the event: “I do remember that they had not mailed any letters about their trip to Kearney.  Literally, I did not know if/when they would even be coming, they “just walked in”.”

It was the winter break and the campus was shut down until the return of students for spring semester. Dr. Skov recalled: “So, we needed to get them housed, etc. “on the fly”. With them sitting in my office…we had arranged housing, food arrangements, and the other necessities. I remember when I had first proposed to bring Mahabir and Dhanajaya to Kearney…with him (Dean Nestor)…I explained their possible coming, and he said “OK” and “do whatever to make it work”. So we did…but, in about 1 hour, we had housing arrangements, food service, jobs in the food service system, and through the help of lots of necessary staff, we were ready to go.”

In Kathmandu all means of beautification are available. Do you prefer a bamboo or steel needle?

Mahabir’s style of throw mud on the wall was evident early on during his education and in part is culturally mediated. In Nepal if you are traveling and need a place to sleep and eat…you have only to knock on the nearest door and you will be welcomed and taken care of. He knew where he was going and what he had to do to get there…he trusted everything else would sort itself out. There is something refreshing about his passion of embracing the possible. So many times I find my own disappointments weighed down not by an actual outcome but by a failed expectation. In other words…what happens in the end is not the disappointment…it was the expectation that set an unrealistic course.

Have you ever faced an event in your life with conviction and passion leading the way. Share your story with my readers. Join me next week for more about Mahabir Pun’s days in Kearney.

Chapter 4 – 1987 to1989 (cont.)

Does this part of the story seem almost cosmic to you? It does to me and I think the details are worth understanding and contemplating because they push our perception of control off the edge of the planet and into the realm of the Celestine Prophecy.

The streets of Kathmandu are awash with the color of everyday life.

Although intelligent and educated how can one man hindered by an undeveloped country, poverty and limited resources defy the odds and connect with a professor thousands of miles away in Nebraska? There’s Mahabir, sitting day after day in the American library in Kathmandu, laboriously writing letters and mailing them one by one to hundreds of US colleges. He waits week after week and month after month for a reply never knowing if the letter even made it out of Nepal owing to the archaic postal system. Even if the letter left Nepal the odds of finding a sympathetic recipient was limited by the time of year, school location, size, resources and the improbability of receiving a scholarship. Add to that the poor odds that even if someone wrote back the letter would make it through the Nepali postal system and back to Mahabir.

Yet across continents and oceans the letter went and landed on the desk of Dr. Leonard Skov in Kearney, Nebraska. Dr. Skov described receiving the first letter from Mahabir as a surprise but the more he contemplated the sheer incredibility of Mahabir’s endeavor the more he decided to jump into Mahabir Pun’s dream. Dr. Skov wrote: “That first letter from Mahabir is still almost “word for word” even now.  He was asking to come to Kearney State College, now University of Nebraska Kearney. Because all his resources were to be used to get to the USA,  he needed support for tuition, housing, books, food (everything).  The college never had a student seeking such an arrangement, but President Bill Nester turned us loose to make it work.”

Mahabir said it was not a full scholarship but covered the tuition….$3000 USD…a sum his $15.38/month teacher salary wouldn’t have come close to paying. Given the improbable odds one could say Mahabir Pun had hit the lottery. This was the best offer he had received to date and he accepted. He also had a $1000 USD/year grant from the American Nepal Association in Oregon to help with expenses. Making this even more incredulous was the fact that he had also asked on behalf of his friend Dhanajaya…and they both were offered the same scholarship and opportunity.

Dr. Skov sent a letter and Mahabir told me he had saved it for many years but he no longer has the letter. It would have been nice to see it when I was in Pokhara for nostalgic reasons…but it had served it’s purpose…Mahabir is not sentimental so it is only a memory.

Do you have  story to tell about an odds defying event in your life? Share it with the readers and join me next week for more of Mahabir Pun’s incredible journey to study abroad.

Chapter 4 – 1987 to 1989

Mahabir Pun quit teaching and left Chitwan in July of 1987. He left behind a successful and satisfying teaching career along with his family. He had no wife or children of his own and his younger siblings had finished their education, so he was free to do as he dreamed. And dream he did…of studying overseas in America.

The tuk-tuk is a three wheeled taxi in Kathmandu.

He lived in Kathmandu and applied to colleges in the USA and England for a year and a half. Using money from his Provident Fund, which was a required savings of 10% of his teacher’s salary that was matched by 10% from the government he managed a meager existence paying for room and board as he researched and applied to schools. This was not a pension as the funds were available if you quit or retired. Remember his 225 rupees/month ($2.35 USD) starting teachers salary? Thirteen years later he was making 1500 rupees/month ($15.68 USD). Mahabir told me this was “an OK salary” back then.

This was the pre-Internet era so he went to the American Library, housed in the US Embassy, for information. Many countries that had embassies developed libraries that allowed open access to ex-patriots and local Nepalese. The libraries had catalogues and videos that provided all the information needed to apply for study abroad: requirements, how to apply, application forms, and addresses.

Like this young boy, Mahabir Pun got around Kathmandu by foot during his years of applying to study abroad.

Mahabir mailed one letter a day. He requested a full scholarship to study Education at each institution. He applied to hundreds of schools. Many schools returned formal letters of rejection and maybe 3-4 letters offered some hope. He recalls receiving a letter from Piedmont College in Georgia, which offered a small sum of scholarship money, but without a full scholarship he could not afford to go. Then one day he received a letter from the University of Nebraska at Kearney from Dr. Leonard Skov. Dr Skov was the Dean of Education at UNK. So began a mentorship that was to last for decades and once again changed the trajectory of Mahabir Pun’s career.

Did someone change your life through mentorship? Have you mentored someone? Share your story with my readers and join me next week to read more about Dr. Skov and Mahabir Pun’s growing friendship.

Chapter Three – The Early Teaching Years (final)

Mahabir Pun taught for thirteen years in Chitwan. Contrary to cultural norms and the wishes of his parents he deferred marriage so he could cultivate his dream to study abroad. Then one day another pivotal event occurred which changed the course of his life.

Author with teachers at Himanchal Higher Education School auditorium.

Each school district has a Chief District Officer (CDO). This is a very powerful position and the CDO yields unfettered power from overseeing schools to maintaining law and order. Mahabir describes this particular CDO as a “jerk”. “This man was difficult to work with and treated people poorly, he yelled and was rude”. According to Mahabir’s account, one day when school was in session, the CDO went to classrooms and reprimanded teachers for no reason in front of the students. Everyone was afraid of the CDO because he could fire them or have them arrested. No one argued with him…until that fateful day when Mahabir stepped up and told him “it was not good to yell at the teachers in front of the students.”. The CDO became angry and a heated argument ensured where Mahabir and the CDO exchanged verbal insults back and forth.

Students from Himanchal Higher Secondary School, Nangi, Nepal.

You can see where this is going….but interestingly it wasn’t until a few months later that the CDO came back one evening and took Mahabir to the local police station. He remained there for six days in police custody. Mahabir is very clear in saying he was not arrested…simply placed in police custody. I’m not sure what difference it makes except he was never charged with a crime. This man processed power and he wanted Mahabir to fear him. But Mahabir, true to character, was not intimidated. Quite contrary to the CDO’s desired results Mahabir was even more angry. He confronted the CDO again and asked why he had him detained. He was told “forget it” by the CDO, but Mahabir would not forget or accept. He quit after this incident and left for Kathmandu in 1987.

His siblings were educated and he had no family of his own to consider…he was free to launch his dream to study abroad. For the next year and a half he lived off his small savings in Kathmandu and doggedly organized a plan be accepted at a foreign university.

If you have ever quit a job to pursue a dream share your story by leaving a comment. Join me next week and read how Mahabir figured out the system he needed to attain his dream.

Chapter Three – The Early Teaching Years (cont.)

Mahabir Pun taught in Chitwan for thirteen years. As the science and math teacher he would have direct opportunities to influence many students daily and some of his students continued their education earning college and masters degrees in the sciences. He does not take credit for their accomplishments or attempt to keep in touch with them. He is not someone to look back, but instead keeps up a relentless forward thrust. However over the years he has been approached by former students via social media and during his lectures and travels.

11th grade students at tika welcoming ceremony, Himanchal Higher Education School, Nangi, Nepal. October 2012.

“I have lots of students from that time, who remember me, contact me or meet me whenever possible. Many of them look even older than me. When we come across, they come forward and introduce themselves to me and tell that they are my students from the specific school and specific year. It is difficult to remember all the faces for such a long period of time. Many of them are even in the US or Europe or Australia or Japan working now. I don’t keep record of them as who is where, but they post me messages once in a while through Facebook or email. I have one student in Denver, who is running eight UPS stores. I have one students running two restaurants in Nebraska. Two students are working as engineers in Virginia area. I have one student in Nepal, who is the Chief Consultant of the company that is building 85 Mile fast track highway and tunnel from Kathmandu to Hetaunda to connect Kathmandu and India. I have a student, who is working as Country Director of Save the Children in Sweden. Some students joined Nepal Army and they have reached to the post of Colonel. Several engineers and doctors or businessman whom I taught in Chitwan are either working in Nepal or abroad. My students come to meet me whenever I travel in different cities in different countries or they at least ask me to stop by when I travel in their area.”

Nangi student wearing traditional head strap bag to carry school books and supplies.

Mahabir described himself as a tough teacher. He demanded discipline in his classroom and was known to occasionally smack students for being disrespectful or disobeying. Some might find that offensive but the one time I witnessed this in Nangi it was not done with malice, nor was it a regular means of discipline. Students present and past respect, admire and try to emulate him. He is their national hero.

Do you recall a teacher who left a lasting impression on you? In 1980, as an LPN, I attended college for the first time at Parkerburg Community College to earn my RN degree. The biology teacher stopped me after class one day and asked if I’d ever considered going to medical school instead. On a legal pad he wrote all the qualifying classes I would need to take…it was a long list. I wish I had kept that list…but for six years I slowly ticked off those classes…one to two a semester until I was ready for the MCATS (Medical College Admissions Test). I can’t remember his name but I remember his face…and how he changed my life. Join me next week to read about the week Mahabir spent in police custody…an event that ended one career and launched another.