From Nepal To College Abroad

Selena Malla ’02

A head and shoulders portrait of Selena Malla

Photo by Risdon Photography

In 1998, Selena Malla ’02 took her first solo trip outside Nepal, to travel to Wellesley for her first year. Now, she manages one of the busiest advising centers in South and Central Asia for students who want to make journeys similar to hers and attend college in the United States.

When Selena arrived on campus, it was also her very first time in the United States. “Even though I had attended an American international school in Kathmandu,” she says, “I was very culture-shocked.” She recalls the blaze of color in autumn on campus and her first rather painful experiences of trying to walk on ice, the terror of walking back to the dorms late at night with no one else around, gazing up at the row of stuffed birds over the Science Center library, and “learning how to actually see” through her courses in photography and drawing.

Selena also has vivid memories of learning how to play the carillon. “I was so inspired and captivated by the beautiful music that resonated through campus, the sounds adding to the utter beauty all around, and somehow encapsulating all my emotions of joy, homesickness, wonder, confusion,” she says. For years, Selena practiced and practiced—but she never felt she was able to master the carillon. “I learned through all this that persistence and being open to new experiences is important and part of the journey, but so is realizing one’s own limits and capacities!”

After Selena graduated with majors in English and computer science, she had an ah-ha! moment when she spotted a newspaper advertisement for a student adviser position at the United States Educational Foundation in Nepal: “It was one of those rare moments one reads a job ad, and it’s a perfect fit. Like, ‘Hey, that’s my job!’” After more than 15 years, Selena still feels passionately about her work at USEF-Nepal. “I work with significant numbers of high-achieving, low-income students who have overcome numerous obstacles,” she says. “Most students seek almost full financial aid awards to make studying in the U.S. a reality.” The center welcomes anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 visitors each year—to great effect. “The lives of these students and their communities are transformed,” Selena says. “Students are able to experience international education, to go far beyond their local contexts and understand other people and cultures.”

In April 2018, however, calamity struck: The University of Texas at Tyler, which had granted full scholarships to 93 Nepali students, withdrew scholarships for 61 of them without warning, pleading insufficient funds. It was way beyond the last minute, but Selena worked tirelessly (and often sleeplessly) with other college advisers in five different countries to get the students full scholarships elsewhere. The result was brilliant success. Whether students would be attending college in Michigan, Colorado, or Korea, they would be able to afford the experience. In part because of the way she handled the crisis, at the annual EducationUSA Forum in Washington, D.C., last August, Selena received the U.S. Department of State’s Unsung Hero Award for her work. “Selena Malla is a true destiny bender, a catalyst of dreams, a bridge builder, and a caring, compassionate, diplomatic adviser and ambassador for Nepal,” her colleague Joan Liu, a college counselor at United World College of South East Asia, East Campus, said after Selena received the award.

Selena has only been back to Wellesley once since graduating, to show her husband where she spent an important part of her life. “Thinking back on my time at Wellesley,” she says, “it partly feels like a dream, I think because almost everything is so different from my local context in Nepal. But on the other hand, it is because of the experience that I am able to do what I do in my career and elsewhere.”

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