Nepali becomes the first female South Asian dean at a university in the United States
When Shabnam Koirala-Azad was growing up in Kathmandu, she had no aspirations to be an educator. But everything she saw, inside and outside her home, pushed her imperceptibly towards her eventual profession.
Nepal was changing. With the People’s Movement of 1990 there was great hope that the restoration of democracy would bring progress in health and education. Yet even back then, Koirala felt that although she was going to the best girls’ schools in the country, there was something missing.
“Living in Nepal was fantastic, I look back on my childhood with a lot of fond memories and gratitude, but the way we learned didn’t allow us to think creatively: the education practiced here never really met my creative needs,” recalls Koirala, who has just been appointed the first South Asian female Dean at a major US university: the School of Education at the University of San Francisco.
Even as she commuted from home to school every day in Lalitpur, Koirala realised early on that her childhood was different than that of her friends. For one thing, she was growing up in a bi-cultural family: her father is a Nepali and her late mother was Iranian.
After high school, it was clear to Koirala that if she wanted to pursue higher education, she would have to leave the country. She got a scholarship and enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a liberal arts college for women.
In the first class, her professor asked Koirala: “What do you think?” A straight-forward question but it had an everlasting impact on her.
“I had never thought what I think or feel, or to question facts. It was during that time that I thought more seriously about pursuing education as a field of study and eventually work,” said Koirala.
This impulse to educate is in her blood. She is the fourth generation of teachers on her mother’s side, and her grandmother faced great difficulty as an educator in Iran because of her Bahá’í faith, which was heavily persecuted. The conditions for her teaching were dangerous and constrained. Shabnam’s father is Bharat Dutt Koirala, the noted Magsaysay-winning journalist and media educator.
“When I think about education, it is not this idea of mass education for all. Instead, it is a specific education, for a specific group of people who are oppressed,” said Koirala. “Education can be empowering to people when delivered the right way.”
Koirala’s experience of growing up in Nepal allowed her to see the impact foreign aid has on a developing country: the lack of follow-through and the corruption. She became more interested in how education and social change intersect. This curiosity would lead to her pursuing both a Master’s and PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.
Now that Koirala has accepted her appointment as Dean, she intends to focus on maintaining her integrity while staying true to her Nepali roots. To her that means a strong sense of resilience, hospitality, compassion, understanding and patience.
By Sean Shoemaker