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TRiO program fuels college dreams

May 17, 2009

By: Mara Kumagai Fink
Minnesota Public Radio
May 15, 2009

"If you climb a mountain, you can't just leave
everyone else behind. You have to pull them up."
- Tenzin Choerap

Northfield, Minn. - When it comes to college,
students of color in Minnesota face longer odds than their white peers.

Less than half of students of color graduate from
high school on time. Of those who go on to a
Minnesota college, the gap in graduate rates
between whites and minorities is 15 percent.

The TRiO program is trying to improve those
statistics. TRiO is a federal program that
targets low-income and first-generation students
and helps them get into college. It grew out of
the War on Poverty in the 1960s.

In Minnesota, about 15,000 students now
participate. This is the story of one of them -- Tenzin Choerap.

Just about everyone at St. Olaf College in
Northfield knows Choerap. Kids call out to him
across campus, and he seems right at home on the
hill. But his road to Northfield wasn't an easy one.

Choerap was born in India, where his family
settled after fleeing Tibet. His father was part
of a special resettlement of Tibetan refugees in
the United States in the early 1990s. Choerap and
the rest of the family stayed behind in India.
When Choerap was 10, they joined his dad in Minneapolis.

"Getting off from the airplane, meeting my dad,
and then getting in car he drove, I was just so
happy," recalled Choerap. "Driving down 35W
across the downtown, it was so pretty. On the
road there's no garbage hanging around, it was
very clean. My first reaction was it is actually
true that people do have a good life here."

Choerap started school in Minneapolis. In eighth
grade, he caught the eye of tutors working for
TRiO. They offered academic support and mentoring to help him get to college.

Choerap's parents signed him up. They were both
teachers back in India. Choerap's mother, Rigzin
Dolma, said when starting over in a new country,
education is more valuable than money.

"Education is like giving you an eye, you know?
If you have no education, you're like blind. Even
you have everything you can see, it's opening your eyes," Dolma said.

To develop that eye, Choerap first had to
envision his own future. He wanted to be a
football player, then a pilot who could fly the
kind of Boeing 747 that carried him to America.

"It had an upper level, and I remember going up
and looking at it. I was mesmerized by the size
and the stature of it. That drew me in," remembered Choerap.

In high school, his interests turned to
architecture and engineering. Choerap says TRiO
kept pushing him to dream about what was next.

"It's funny, before TRiO I never really actually
thought about high school when I was in middle
school, and college when I was in high school, so
TRiO really was like someone poking you saying,
'Hey, now you've got to think about this,'" he said.

In ninth grade, Choerap began telling his mentors
he was worried about paying for college. His
parents were supporting family members back in
India, and paying tuition for his two older
sisters to attend the University of St. Thomas.

Choerap wasn't sure about setting his sights on
an expensive private school. A scholarship from
TRiO helped bring St. Olaf College within reach.

"When you're in high school and you're just
scared to death about how you're going to pay
$40,000 a year ...that type of news really helps
motivate you more to look for these colleges," he said.

TRiO helped Choerap get into a competitive
college, and figure out financial aid. But
sticking with college can come down to more personal things, like fitting in.

A summer program for incoming TRiO students meant
Choerap already had friends on the first day of school.

"When school started, it was like, 'Oh hey, I
know you.' So when you see these students in the
classroom you do feel comfortable -- when you're
not the only one who has a black head, or an
accent when you speak in front of the class," Choerap said.

Now he's a junior majoring in mathmatics with a
concentration in business management. He has set
his sights on graduate school, with the help of
TRiO. He hopes to use his business skills to own a Tibetan restaurant someday.

Choerap wants other young Tibetans to have these
opportunities too. He and some students from St.
Olaf and Carleton College have started a Friday
night tutoring program in the Twin Cities for college-bound Tibetan teens.

"We call it Lamton. In Tibetan, that means 'guidance.'"

Choerap said it's his own version of a TRiO program for them.

"If you climb a mountain, you can't just leave
everyone else behind, you have to pull them up," he said.

For Choerap, scaling mountains can happen, even on the prairie.
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