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 closely is willing to bet against her after all the obstacles she has overcome.
For the first 12 years of her life, Lhamo lived a nomadic existence in Tibet. One of 12 children, she first immigrated to India, traveling through the Himalayan Mountains in a harrowing three-month journey. Later, she moved to the United States and settled in Montville with part of her family, arriving in the English Language Learners program in Montville Public Schools.
At first, each school day passed by slowly and uncomfortably for Lhamo. She did not know English and had few peers who she could speak to and confide in.
But with the help of several after-school tutoring sessions, Lhamo learned English in about five months after arriving in Montville about four years ago. Now she's flourishing as one of the most accomplished students in the Montville High School senior class.
Lhamo was recently awarded the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will cover the costs toward 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, who is 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 without the aid of a hospital or modern medicine. Each day, the family traveled through the hills and mountains of Tibet as the seasons changed in search of grass for their yaks, goats, sheep and horses to graze upon.
When she was 12 years old, Lhamo
immigrated from Tibet to India, following in the footsteps of one of her brothers. She spent about three months making the journey without either of her parents or family by her side. Often, the small group that she traveled in made its way by foot in chilling temperatures.
Lhamo then arrived in Bylakuppe, a Tibetan refugee settlement in south India. She 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, which controls the country. Starting school in Montville and not knowing the languague also made for many difficult days.
"It was hard the first time I got there," Lhamo said. "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 was smiling as she spoke of her love for school. She has a love for most subjects, particularly chemistry, and she has always had plans of becoming a doctor, although she's not sure which type of medicine she'll pursue.
Robert Thorn, the coordinator of the English Language Learners program for Montville Public Schools, said that Lhamo's success stems from her self-dependent upbringing.
Lhamo is also easy to speak with in person. She's soft-spoken and polite. 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 about anything.
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.
Her tutor, Katherine Dykes, was impressed with how quickly 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 Casino, 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.
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 she would become a doctor.
"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. No one knows of anyone else who has gotten this scholarship in New London County," Thorn said. "The world is at her fingertips. She has all this opportunity and her dream is going to be fulfilled."