I followed a dream: Anup Kaphle

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In the past two decades, Nepali journalism has seen massive growth. However, very few Nepali journalists, or journalists of Nepali origin, have been able to make it to the ever-competitive international reporting arena. 

Anup Kaphle is a bit of a rags-to-riches success story, with a humbling beginning and inspiring accomplishments. Considering where he is now, especially at the young age of 33, this is just a beginning of good things to come.

Kaphle, originally from Pokhara, now works at BuzzFeed as the Deputy Foreign Editor. Before joining the digital media company, he worked at The Washington Post, one of the oldest and most respected U.S. dailies, as the digital editor for world and national security news. He oversaw the paper’s digital strategy for foreign coverage coming out of 17 bureaus worldwide. He also produced sleek, superb multimedia elements for the website and regularly contributed reports for the print edition.

Kaphle has reported for various international media outlets, from Chitwan to Kandahar to New York on many different stories ranging from Maoists to U.S. elections to Afghan Naan.

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Prior to joining the Post, he was a digital media fellow at the Atlantic, where he helped edit and launch new online features and websites for the highly respected magazine. While with the Atlantic, he traveled to Afghanistan for the first time and reported on British Gurkhas.

Kaphle, a 2008 graduate from the prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism specializes in new media. As the newspaper world crumbles in the West, journalism has found a new home in new media. He says: “I think as print medium slowly becomes a thing of the past, we will have to constantly innovate and find new ways to do our journalism. We have to utilize photos, videos and graphics to complement the articles on the web and other digital platforms.

Kaphle has received various reporting grants, namely from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the South Asian Journalists Association Reporting Fellowship and has been awarded Foreign Press Association’s first prize. His other works have appeared in Foreign Policy, The Globe and Mail, Forbes.com to name a few.

Kaphle told us that he grew up reading foreign news. “I had and continue to have immense curiosity about the world. There is so much of what we don’t cover in traditional publications and I hope that I can utilize my digital expertise and my reporting skills to travel and cover stories that will shape America’s foreign policy as well as our generation,” he said.

His goal may have changed from winning a Pulitzer and writing a book, but the young Nepali journalist has not let go of his ambition: to tell stories in new, innovative ways ‘because it is the best job in the world’.

Here, we publish an excerpt of his honors convocation speech to the graduating students at his alma mater Tusculum College in Tennessee, USA.


Good morning everyone!

I am very honored to be standing here today. Five years ago, I was in your seat, impatiently waiting to figure out what I was going to do after college. I had been rejected from three big graduate schools, I had no job, and I had nowhere to go.

Today, I came here to tell you about the best thing I did in my life: I followed a dream.

I know — it sounds cheesy. But we have all had dreams – some big, some small, and no matter what the consequences, sometimes we refuse to give up on it. Where one dream stops, another begins.

My dream began about 8000 miles away from here, in a small city in western Nepal. (For those of you who don’t know where Nepal is, pull up your iPhones later and look it up.)

My parents had both moved from a remote village to come to the city to study. My mother was a teacher – and my father, a government employee, looked after irrigation for farmers in over 15 districts.

From an early age, my father tried to tell me why studying was so important. My grandfather, who was a farmer, sent him to a local school in the village, but he often missed his classes because he had to cut grass for the buffaloes at home and feed the cows.

My father wanted to make sure that my brother and I got a good education, so he worked hard to send us to an English- speaking school in the city.

Because of my father’s job, we lived in government housing, which exposed me to other government workers whose promotions depended on passing a national exam.

Growing up in such a studious environment, I too started reading about international affairs at a very young age. I learned about Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, I read about the Gulf of Tonkin, I had memorized the capital of almost every country in the world. I started to become fascinated with foreign policy, and with the English language.

My love for journalism started at an early age when my father used to hold a part-time job at a popular hotel.

When he came home at night, he used to bring empty whiskey bottles wrapped in foreign newspapers. The first foreign newspaper I came across was the Toronto Sun, which my father had used to wrap an empty bottle of Glenfiddich scotch so that he could use it to refrigerate water at home.

Every time my father brought some kind of food from the hotel, it came wrapped in some kind of a foreign magazine or newspaper. These pieces of paper became my window to the world outside Nepal — U.S invasion of Panama, Diego Maradona’s rise in the soccer world, the war in Bosnia and the Gulf War.

I refused to believe that I could not learn English. I sat in front of the television watching Robo Cop every week when I was young, so I could learn English from the robot. I picked words like ‘hazardous’ and ‘paradise’ listening to Guns N Roses repeatedly on a borrowed cassette tape.

But as much I wanted to learn English and write, my father had some other plans for me. It is almost a cliché in South Asia — your parents either want you to become a doctor or an engineer.

Everything else is seen as a second tier lifestyle. So there I was, learning about the Pythagorean theory and Newton’s laws, while deep down inside all I wanted to do was become a writer.

When I finished high school, my father decided to send me to an engineering school. For the first time in life, I talked back to my father. I told my father I didn’t want to study engineering. Instead I took at internship at an English newspaper in Kathmandu.

When I decided that I wanted to study in the United States, my father told me that the only way he would send me is if I would study engineering. I told him that I would do just that.

I got into 13 universities and colleges in the United States. And thanks to a scholarship, I came to Tusculum College and told my father that I would be studying environmental science, which would help me move into environmental engineering program.

On a humid August afternoon, I landed in a tiny airstrip in Tennessee. The day after I arrived at Tusculum College, I changed my major to English. My father did not find out until two years later.

For four years, Tusculum was my home away from home. Here, I would learn and experience things I had never imagined in life. I still remember my first morning in America, inside the cafeteria, where I had a piece of bacon for the first time in life.

Till this day, I tell my friends that bacon is probably the best thing that has happened to me in America. By my freshman year, I had become familiar with marshmallows, the idea of which puzzles me till this day.

Talking about bacon, for the first several months, a few people on campus and in the town thought that I was a terrorist. I was called everything from a Taliban to Saddam Hussein and occasionally asked to ‘go back to Iraq.’ But besides a few fools who could not show me where Iraq was on the map of the world, everyone on this campus were welcoming and nice.

When people saw me walk to the grocery store in the middle of the night, they offered me a ride; when Thanksgiving came and I had nowhere to go, they brought me to celebrate with their family, when Christmas came and there was nowhere to stay, my professors took me in. Tusculum became more than just a college to me.

In classrooms, my professors were absolutely patient with me. My friends allowed me to become part of the college newspaper, which was a big honor for me.

Three years later, I became the editor of the college newspaper. I wrote stories about subjects that ranged anywhere from the popularity of Mama’s fried chicken in the cafeteria to the sale of marijuana on campus. I have to tell you. Of course, that did not make me the most popular guy on campus.

Being likable was the last thing on my mind. I always felt like I had a rebel inside of me. I wanted to channel the inner rebel to write stories that others did not want to write about.

But I was still not good enough. In fact, I had become hopeless after I was rejected by the Greeneville Sun for almost two and a half years in a row for internships and writing gigs. I thought to myself, I just didn’t have in me what it takes to become a journalist in America.

But my professors were there to encourage me. Wayne Thomas spent countless hours helping me craft my reporting and writing skills, Wess Dubrisk taught me the rule of thirds in photography, Jim Reid’s Foreign Policy class became a window to the mysterious world of modern American foreign policy and through Jeff Lokey’s class, I learned about the challenges that were facing nations around the world, geo-politically and environmentally.

I don’t want to fool you all by sounding like all I did here was study, write and work. I did skip some classes here and there on Fridays because I was too hungover from the Thursday night party at Second Level in Johnson City.

Now in the interest of not having my degree confiscated, I do want to emphasize that all these hangover moments happened off campus on a long weekend. I have not forgotten that this is a dry campus.

Exactly five years ago, after walking out of this convocation, I went to open my mailbox in the Niswonger Hall. I had an acceptance letter from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Now I had offended my father for the second time.

Third, if you actually count bacon, because eating pork is not encouraged in my family.

But I decided to attend Columbia anyway because I knew that Columbia was my last chance to enter the world of journalism.

Three days before graduate school started, I found out that I had gotten a full scholarship. I was going to the most prestigious journalism school in the world.

By my first week at Columbia, I realized that I was years behind rest of my colleagues in terms of understanding what had happened to the journalism industry.

Newspapers were dying, magazines were closing bureaus and there were fewer and fewer jobs available in the profession. That is when I entered the world of digital journalism.

The first time I had touched a laptop was in 2005, and three years later, here I was, trying to learn the tools of journalism that mostly involved computers and advanced editing and designing softwares.

That’s where graveyard shift working experience came in handy again. For two summers, I had worked as a third shift janitor at Tusculum College, helping clean dorm rooms for the new students in the fall. I was used to drinking coffee at 9 p.m. and working till 6 in the morning.

Throughout my graduate school, I found a group of friends who were as insane as I was, who would occasionally bring pillows and sleep in the computer labs. We wrote, we edited, we edited some more, we drank coffee at midnight, and then we slept for an hour or two. I think I actually started believing in the sentence “You can sleep when you die.”

On top of rigorous classroom demands at Columbia, I had to compete for internships at a national level. I was rejected by every single publication I had applied for an internship with. I was rejected twice by the Washington Post.

But that did not stop me from trying. Over the next several months, I had taken courses in international reporting, video and audio editing and developing interactive graphics.

When I finished at Columbia in 2008, I landed a job at the Atlantic, one of the oldest publications in the United States. During my time there, I got a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association to travel to Afghanistan, a place that I had been fascinated with for many years.

After the Atlantic, I got a job with the Washington Post, where I now work as a digital editor for the foreign and national security sections. Keep in mind, I was rejected there twice. Since coming to the Washington Post, I have received two traveling fellowships from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This past December, I went back to Afghanistan to report on the country’s local police force.

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I had a dream that I followed – and each step of the way was not easy. But I knew it wouldn’t be – from an early age when I had not the means nor the backing to start pursuing a career in journalism.

For those of you who are graduating next month, don’t expect the path to your dreams to be easy. Every step, every struggle, every let down, will only make that accomplishment so much greater – or it may open up to a new dream.

And I say this not to discourage you, but to remind you that when you walk out of these doors next month, you will be competing with the rest of the world.

If you think football players from Mars Hill were tough on the field, you haven’t seen how hard those big boys from Ohio State can hit you.

If you are upset that your childhood friend from Knoxville got the accounting internship you wanted last summer, you have no idea how hard the Argentine kid from University of Chicago has worked for the next internship which you are setting your eyes upon.

If you have dreamed of getting into the school of medicine at Vanderbilt, you should also know that a student from Kenya has been rejected there twice and is applying for the third time with an MCAT score probably better than yours.

I know each one of you came here with a dream. Some of you want to become educators, some of you want to become doctors, some hope to become professional athletes and maybe a handful of you want to become writers.

For every single one of you, there is a challenger waiting outside — because the world and America as we know it, has changed.

You will be competing for a graduate school placement or a job with someone from a place you might have never heard of. You will be rejected, not once, not twice but again and again. And in those times, your only option is to not give up and fight for it, work hard and innovate.

I would not be standing in front of you all here today if I had decided to give up on my dreams. The only thing that kept me going is this belief that anything is possible. I had left my home, my parents, my friends I grew up with and came to this place where I did not know a single soul — so returning empty handed was not an option.

The entire time, the only thing I believed in was how I felt deep inside: because only my heart knew what I wanted, and how badly I wanted it. And when you want something really badly, you find a way to get it.

If I have learned anything after coming to America, it is the fact that nothing comes easy in life. I have learned that it is okay to fail. Because you will never learn how good it feels to succeed if you do not fail. If you really want to do something, go for it.

There will be a few obstacles here, and a few there, but when you put your heart into getting your dream, you will develop the strength to knock down anything that is on your way.

So today, I challenge you to dream.

You might not get it tomorrow, or the day after, but you will prevail eventually.

Good luck, and thank you.

Photos Source: Anup Kaphle/Facebook

This article was originally published in The Week (Friday edition of Republica national daily). The article has been republished here with minor updates about his current job.

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