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Montville - In total, Tashi Lhatso has had only seven years of formal schooling. That was enough, however, to prepare her for college: The 15-year-old is graduating from Montville High School and will being studying chemistry at the University of Connecticut in the fall.
"When I saw her birth date, I was really surprised," said Katherine Dykes, an English language tutor at the school. At first, she thought it must be a mistake. Lhatso, she said, "always had held her own, was very mature, very self-directed."
Lhatso credits that maturity to her complicated childhood in Tibet and India, which forced her to become independent at an early age.
Her father, a political activist, received death threats and was charged with breaking Chinese law because he distributed "Free Tibet" pamphlets and showed a video of the Dalai Lama's teachings. He fled to India, and Lhatso's family was unable to contact him because they believed it would put him in danger.
After about a year, Lhatso's mother sent her alone to India to search for her father and attend school. She was just 9 years old. She was smuggled across Tibet in a commercial truck, crouching behind large boxes at Chinese checkpoints.
"The memory of being curled in a ball, alone and afraid to breathe, behind those big boxes with words scribbled on them, is one of the few images that I retain of that scary and strange time," she wrote in her college admissions essay.
To reach the border of Nepal and India, she was carried on a stranger's back in a basket usually used to carry cow dung.
Once in India, she attended a boarding school for Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala. She unsuccessfully looked for her father in her free time and eventually learned from a distant relative that her father had moved to the United States.
After three years, she followed him to the United States. Instead of moving to Maryland with her father, however, Lhatso went to live with Ake Ake and Thontup Dolma, her uncle and college-educated aunt who could help her with school. Her mother and younger brother have recently moved to the United States as well, and her family visits her in Connecticut regularly.
By now, Lhatso is in many ways "a typical American teenager who enjoys spending time with her friends and loves to make people laugh," said Dykes. She watches movies and TV shows to help improve her English, including one of her favorites, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."
The highlight of her time in the United States so far came when she was chosen, in October, to participate in the welcoming ceremony when the Dalai Lama visited Western Connecticut State University. Lhatso offered the leader a traditional barley drink.
"I was even afraid to raise my head, I was holding (the cup) and shaking so hard," Lhatso said. "It makes me feel very proud and very blessed, because I think only a few people get this kind of opportunity to see him that close."
"Being Buddhist, my religion has taught me others before self," Lhatso said. That concept led her to consider a career as a physician - though she isn't positive that she won't change her major during college.
Dykes said she is impressed by Lhatso's compassion for others and expects to see her "in an international position of leadership, advocating for those who are unable to speak for themselves."