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Montville - A visitor brings up the fact that becoming a doctor will take years of school and studying, and Tashi Lhamo hardly blinks.
"I love school. I can handle it," Lhamo said, smiling.
Truth is, no one who knows Lhamo well would bet against her after all the obstacles she has overcome.
For the first 12 years of her life, Lhamo was a nomad in Tibet. As a 12-year-old, she traveled across the Himalaya Mountains to India in a harrowing three-month journey. About four years ago, she moved to the United States and settled in Montville with part of her family, and began the school district's English Language Learners program.
At first, each school day passed by slowly and uncomfortably for Lhamo. She did not know English and had few peers whom she could speak to and confide in.
But with the help of after-school tutoring sessions, Lhamo learned English in about five months. Now she's flourishing as one of the senior class' most accomplished students.
Lhamo was recently awarded the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will cover the costs of an undergraduate degree and provide her an additional annual stipend for college. One of three students in the state - and 1,000 nationwide - to receive the scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Lhamo plans to attend Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., in the fall.
Those close to the Montville senior marvel at her accomplishments and her perseverance. Lhamo's teachers and Micheley Angelina, a family friend and mentor, suggest that Lhamo's past experiences have built her into the impressive young woman she is today.
"She has this ocean of love and mercy in her heart," Angelina said.
A long journey
Lhamo's mother, Dolma Yangzom, gave birth to all 12 of her children - Lhamo was the seventh - without the aid of a hospital or modern medicine.
As the seasons changed, the family traveled across the hills and mountains of Tibet in search of grass for their animals to graze on.
In the mornings, Lhamo would wake to help her family care for yaks, goats, sheep, horses and other animals. At the end of each day, she slept in a tent made from yak's fur, the cool air wafting through the door at night.
When she was 12 years old, Lhamo left Tibet for India, as one of one of her brothers did before her. She left in a small group without either of her parents and it took about three months to reach Bylakuppe, a Tibetan refugee settlement in south India. The group often traveled by foot and in chilling temperatures.
Prior to reaching Bylakuppe, Lhamo had never attended school before, but she immediately took to her studies. She spent a short time in Bylakuppe before joining her father, Zanla Phuntsok Thinleg, a resident alien, and other family members, in the United States.
Lhamo said it was difficult to describe how hard it was making the dangerous journey out of Tibet and evading the reach of the Chinese government. China has controlled Tibet since the 1950s, when the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India.
Starting school in Montville and not knowing the language also made for many difficult days.
"It was hard the first time I got there," said Lhamo, who is about two years older than most of her classmates. "I was in the classroom not talking, just staring at everyone. It was embarrassing, too."
Lhamo recounted these feelings on a recent afternoon, but a few minutes later she smiled as she spoke of her love for school. She has a love for most subjects, particularly chemistry, and she has always planned to become a doctor, although she's not sure which type of medicine she'll pursue.
Robert Thorn, coordinator of the English Language Learners program for Montville schools, said Lhamo's upbringing has contributed to her success. Self-dependent and with a thirst for education, she's made herself into the student she is today, he indicated.
Lhamo speaks English almost flawlessly, with just a slight accent. She's soft-spoken and polite, and remarkably open about her life to this point. She wears glasses and giggles every now and then when she answers questions. In her occasional mentoring sessions with Lhamo, Angelina said she's never heard Lhamo complain and she is amazed by the focus she brings to her studies.
A distinguished honor roll student, Lhamo has also earned all A's this school year. She had a 4.95 GPA at the end of the last marking period, which placed her among the top five students in her class.
She wrote 10 essays for the Gates Millennium Scholarship application and was selected from a pool of more than 20,000 students. She is the first Gates recipient from New London County, according to a research analyst with the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, and she will be eligible for a Gates fellowship that will cover about $38,000 per year toward graduate school, the research analyst said.
Her tutor, Katherine Dykes, was impressed with how quickly and efficiently Lhamo learned English.
"It was like a race where you see one horse pull ahead of the rest," Dykes said.
Lhamo said she lives with her father, an employee at Mohegan Sun, six siblings and other family members. Her mother and her other siblings still live in Tibet. Lhamo said she can speak with her mother, who has hopes of immigrating to the U.S., over the phone.
A Buddhist, Lhamo also serves as a translator for the Tibetan American Association, translating between Tibetan and English. She helped with efforts to have the state translate its driver's training manual to Tibetan, to help her people learn to drive.
Lhamo also is part of several volunteer groups. She mentors younger English Language Learners students at Tyl Middle School. On a recent afternoon, she hurried over to Tyl for a 3 p.m. tutoring session and then scurried back to the high school a few hours later to take part in a ceremony for the National Honor Society.
Years from now, Lhamo has hopes of helping people in other ways. After her experience with her family and seeing how little medical assistance was available for her fellow Tibetans, she was convinced becoming a doctor was the right profession for her.
She has even thought about returning to the place where her remarkable journey began.
"Even if I can't go back (to Tibet), I would go somewhere else, like Africa, or some other poor country that doesn't have medical support," Lhamo said. "So I can provide them better health support."
Lhamo's teachers see this benevolence regularly. And they're anxious to see what's next for a young woman who has come so far.
"When she got the Gates Millennium (Scholarship), it blew the doors off," Thorn said. "The world is at her fingertips. She has all this opportunity and her dream is going to be fulfilled."