TribLIVE – Ritika Chamlagai has never doubted that she will someday be a doctor.
As a child growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal, the hospitals were lacking even basic sanitation and people, if they had the money, were forced to travel to different countries to get the health care they needed.
Seeing that, Ritika, now 18 and living in Whitehall, was determined to make a difference.
“I just knew that I wanted to help people and heal people. That’s just always been my passion,” she said.
Ritika has never wavered — except maybe that one short-lived dream of being an actress — in her goal. She studied hard, taking six advanced placement courses in her senior year alone, and never once got a B or lower on a report card.
This month, she heads to Villanova University, where she plans to study biology. Although, she’s already thinking of changing her major to bio-chemistry, because she wants to be more challenged.
As the recipient of the Gertrude F. Weinert Memorial Scholarship, established by Whitehall residents Robert E. and Gertrude F. Weinert, her entire four-year tuition will be paid in full.
“It’s such a great opportunity because I get to go to the college of my choice and not worry about finances and not worry about putting this on my parents,” she said.
The scholarship, with about $3 million in a trust, was created in 2018 and is given to a Baldwin High School student based on need, said Superintendent Randal Lutz. The district received about 140 applicants this year.
“For at least one student every year, it is a game-changer,” Lutz said.
While life for many in refugee camps isn’t easy, Ritika remembers many of the happy parts, like time with family and friends. Her parents had been exiled from their native Bhutan due to ethnic cleansing and that’s how they ended up in the refugee camp.
Most of Ritika’s memories from Nepal are from her school, where she learned British English. She remembers playing with her friends and that her family home was made of bamboo.
For the adults, jobs were hard to come by, she recalls. Her dad drove a van for a hospital and her parents sent her to a school outside the refugee camp.
Her family moved to the United States when she was 10 years old.
Ritika remembers being excited to come to the “Utopian society” that she envisioned America to be.
She remembers arriving at Newark Airport and getting to munch on potato chips before her family made their way to Houston.
“It was exactly like how I saw it in pictures,” she said.
But it was hard. She missed her friends and home.
She took a test and her English was good enough that she didn’t have to be in English as a Second Language classes upon entering the U.S. school system in fifth grade.
While she knew English, there still was a disconnect from British English and American.
She didn’t always know what people were saying to her, so she assumed they were being mean. It was her teacher who helped her adapt.
She also started reading lots of books, out of her competitive nature, because she wanted to win a prize from the local library. That also helped her English improve.
After two years in Houston, her family moved to Whitehall to the former Prospect Park, now Whitehall Place apartments.
It was an adjustment, again. There were all of these other Nepali kids in her school in Baldwin-Whitehall, something she didn’t have in Houston.
“I didn’t know how to act because I hadn’t been friends with someone my age who was Nepali for two years,” she said.
Ritika, who describes herself as “outgoing and extroverted” in Nepal, says she isolated herself in the U.S., because she was insecure and always thought people were talking about her. Finally, she’s now starting to come out of that shell.
She took school very seriously and liked to take the hard classes. She talks about how in Nepal, a good education isn’t free. Here it is.
“It made me very appreciative and very grateful and I never took it for granted,” she said.
Her parents instilled it in her to work hard. And she’s never quick to judge anyone, because you never know what they’ve been through.
“She’s a great kid. She’s good at everything she does,” said Susie Backscheider, youth mentoring coordinator for South Hills Interfaith Movement, where Ritika was involved in programming and worked at the summer camp. “She’s obviously very bright.”
At Baldwin High School, Ritika was in the National Honor Society, where she was the vice president of tutoring her senior year. She strived to help the school’s large population of refugees with their tutoring in that role.
She also was in math league and played soccer for Baldwin for two years.
“She’s very smart, but she’s also very kind and very down to earth,” said Anthony Paolo, a volunteer youth mentor with SHIM.
In the Prospect Park neighborhood, she helped lead a community soccer team.
She even volunteered with Global Links to help sort packages that were sent to people living in areas affected by natural disasters.
While Ritika is not the first to go to college in her family — her brother graduated from Penn State Greater Allegheny and now is enrolled in a master’s program for IT at Point Park — Ritika did not want to burden her parents with the process or finances of college.
She used the internet to help her find the top schools in her major and sought the help of SHIM youth mentors with the application process.
She knew that getting loans would “put a huge pressure” on her parents, who would want to help her pay the money back because that’s the Nepali culture, she said.
So, she sought out as many scholarships as possible. Villanova gave her some money off her tuition and she received a few other smaller scholarships.
This one, though, is life-changing.
She hopes to someday work with a disadvantaged population as a doctor.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said.