From refugee to valedictorian: how Druid Hills High teen did it

Born and raised in a refugee camp in Nepal, Abishkar Chhetri moved to the Decatur area with his family when he was 13 years old.

Not surprisingly, he was still learning English when he started taking an AP history class as a sophomore at Druid Hills High School.

“At first, I was kind of worried about him, to be honest,” said Druid Hills High School history teacher Lisa Johnston. “I was not sure he was going to keep up with the reading and grasp concepts because of the language barrier.”

But Chhetri figured out a way to master the material and excel in school. Every day on the bus to and from school, he listened to the definitions of vocabulary words, one by one, on his iPhone: serendipitous, paramount, tenacious.

Tenacious: “not easily stopped or pulled apart; firm or strong; continuing for a long time; very determined to do something.”

Today, Chhetri, 18, is a shining example of tenacity. He is valedictorian of his class at Druid Hills, a DeKalb County high school known for a highly competitive academic environment, particularly in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Chhetri will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall on a full scholarship. He said he is interested in studying engineering and physics, and while unsure about his career path, he knows one thing: “I want to help people.”

It certainly wasn’t an easy journey for Chhetri, one of about 370 graduating seniors at Druid Hills High School. Chhetri has a younger sister, Amisha, who is 14 and a freshman at Druid Hills High School. His mother, Uma Chhetri, has an office job; his father, Krishna Chhetri, works at a restaurant.

“After the first couple months in the States, I was in a state of disillusionment. I felt lonely. The language barrier was turning out to be a big hurdle, and I almost felt like all of the hopes and aspirations would be left unfulfilled,” he said. “But I knew I had to make the most of the opportunity here. My parents had made big sacrifices for me and my sister’s education, so I had to do everything I could to make them happy.”

Even as a sophomore taking the AP history class, it took 20 minutes for him to read a single page of text in English. So he watched history documentaries, YouTube videos on class subjects, and listened to audio books to help bolster his learning. But he also spent hours each day, sometimes several hours, studying, earning the nickname of “workaholic” from classmates.

Chhetri also credits his teachers, including Johnston and his Druid Hills ESOL teacher Alexandra Salivia, with helping him believe in himself.

“Ms. Salivia would always tell me, ‘You can do this. You are smart. And as soon as you learn the language, you will be able to do everything.”

Chhetri always had an affinity for math.

“At first when my English was not so good, I was determined to make up for it with math,” he said.

Over time, succeeding in math boosted his confidence.

Johnston, who was also Chhetri’s IB history teacher this year, said she watched Chhetri blossom, shedding his shy, timid self to become a more confident student, a young man with his own voice and ability to do thoughtful analysis.

Johnston remembered when Chhetri was featured in the high school newspaper a couple of years ago. In the piece, Chhetri described his daily struggle in a Bhutanese refugee camp — living in a bamboo house; walking 3 miles for drinking water; getting by on meager supplies of rice and vegetables. He also talked about the deplorable conditions of schools in the refugee camps, and even though he studied on dusty floors with shared books, he made the most of his education in a refugee camp, even learning basic English.

When Chhetri was about 8 years old, his parents managed to secure jobs in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, earning barely enough to cover the costs of their children’s schooling. But within four years, financial woes forced the family to return to the refugee camp. When they returned to the camp, they learned about the U.S. resettlement program. (See the box for more about Bhutanese refugees and the U.S. program.)

“The article opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” Johnston said. “Everyone talked about it for weeks. The kids were surprised and instead of looking at the obstacles in their life, they were like, ‘I can do this.’”

Chhetri’s mom said she was not surprised her son did well in school because he has always applied himself and is self-motivated.

As far as her son being valedictorian, she said: “We are so happy, so proud.”

When interviewed recently by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chhetri was still working on his valedictorian speech, which he will deliver at Monday’s graduation at the Georgia Dome, jotting down thoughts.

“If you have a goal, follow your heart,” he said. “And be thankful for what you have. Recognize what you have and make the most of your opportunities.”

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