My memory of Pocatello as an international student

This is an article I wrote for Idaho State Journal sharing my experience of Pocatello.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen a lot of social media posts and news articles about the horrific experiences Middle Eastern students were having at Idaho State University. It saddens me to see this happening in Pocatello, my home away from home.

Yesterday, I was watching a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of a single story. This motivated me to share my experience of Pocatello as an international student from Nepal.

Please, understand that I completely empathize with the students who were victims of discrimination, vandalism and emotional torture. I am not trying to dismiss all the events that happened, but simply sharing my story of Pocatello, even though it’s a single story. Adichie’s talk highlighted how a single story emphasizes how we are different more than how we are similar. I’d hate to see a single story define my beloved college town.

Here is my story of Pocatello. My flight landed in Pocatello airport a little after 10 p.m. on a cold January night in 2003. I was 19 at that time, and even though I had dreamt of coming to United States for years, the reality of being away from home was horrible. I had been traveling for what felt like weeks. My luggage had gotten delayed during a transfer in Amsterdam. So there I was — a 19-year-old boy in a foreign land with no luggage, barely speaking English, tired, hungry and ready to cry.

I could not locate the cab, international office had sent for pickup, and turns out the driver thought I wasn’t the one needing to be picked up since I had no luggage. After walking back and forth the Pocatello regional airport for almost 30 minutes, I noticed a Pocatello PD officer walking towards me. For no apparent reason, my heart started beating hard and I automatically started thinking I was in trouble. He came over and simply asked if I needed any help. After patiently listening to my story, he asked me to just wait while he contacted the university.

Within an hour, Shawn Bascom from the International office was there to pick me up. It must have been close to midnight by then. I was delighted to finally get out of the airport and may be get some sleep. Shawn had received a call from Public safety, and after hearing the story, decided to get out of bed and come help me. Shawn took me to Turner Hall, where a half asleep woman let us in and introduced herself as the resident director.

Melissa found an empty room on the 5th floor for me, and got some sheets and towel. She asked me if I was hungry. I told her I was, but I needed a shower and sleep more than food at that moment. Melissa pointed me to the showers and left. When I returned to my room, I saw a McDonald’s bag with a chicken sandwich, fries, and a drink. I could not help but get teary eyes and gobble up that food as fast as I could.

The next morning, I got up and headed straight to the international office. When I saw the campus/town in daylight, it was nothing like the image of U.S I had conjured from Hollywood movies.

Disappointed, I made it to the international office where Michelle Lewis asked If I had called home yet. After I told her I hadn’t figured out how to do that yet, she immediately called home for me. I don’t think I had ever been that delighted to hear my parents voice. Scared of bursting out in tears in front of everyone, I hung up after a very brief conversation.

At the orientation, I met other Nepali students, who gladly shared their clothes and snacks from Nepal until my luggage finally arrived. Slowly, I was getting acclimated to the new place and people.

Our sociology Professor, Ann Hunter, asked how we were settling in and after some conversation invited us for dinner at her home. We were taken aback by the familiar smell of lentil curry and rice when we showed up. I had never ! realized how many memories a simple smell can bring back.

Ann and her husband Ray later became my friendship family, and Ray was more than happy to help with my English, and show us around the town and the state. Later, we met Fred and Terry— my friend Dhiraj’s friendship family and Keith and Marlene— my friend Bikash’s friendship family. Fred and Terry had travelled to Nepal and surprised us with a delicious Nepali meal and a slideshow of Nepal trip.

We got to meet their equally wonderful friends and family over time. All of whom treated us like their own family, always including us during holidays and celebrations. They all really became our friendship family and our family away from home.

Couple weeks into the semester, when I asked Mellissa where I could find jobs on campus, she offered me few hours working at the front desk. By my second semester, I was able to get 20 hours.

One morning, while at work, I saw this beautiful young girl using the payphone at the lobby to call home. Trying to be helpful, I told her it was cheaper to use the phone in her room if she was using calling cards. She smiled at me and said thanks. Couple days later I saw her using the phone again, and repeated what I had told her before. Again, she smiled and thanked me.

This continued for quite a while. After a while, I started thinking “this girl must really like me, otherwise why would she keep coming back to use the payphone?” After finding out we were in the same chemistry class, we started talking. Anisa is from Albania, and we started talking about our similarities and differences and fell in love in the process.

Twelve years later, Anisa and I live in Colorado with our silly dog Bobo and I have to thank Pocatello for bringing us together. I did find out much later that the reason Anisa kept coming back to use the payphone wasn’t because she wanted to see me. She simply had no idea what I was saying due to my strong accent. She was just trying to be polite by saying thanks and smiling.

In academic fronts, late my sophomore year, I applied for a job with a professor in Pharmaceutical and Biomedical sciences department. I was not qualified for what he was looking for, but he thought I would be a good fit for a colleague of his who was looking for some help. This is how I met Dr. Leslie Devaud. Dr. Devaud trusted me to give me my first lab job, and provided me mentorship throughout the way.

In similar fashion, I found Dr. Jeffrey Rosentreter in the Chemistry department, who welcomed me to his lab with open arms. After I had been learning in his lab for a while, he once said something that has stuck with me till today. He said, “Bikul, I cannot promise you million dollar grants and unlimited travel funds, but what I can promise is that you will have the same opportunity as everyone else, and I will be more than happy to teach you everything I know.” I got my M.S in Chemistry from Dr. Rosentreter’s lab and worked in Dr. Devaud’s lab till the week before I left Pocatello.

Over the years Pocatello had really become my home away from home. I still tell everyone about how wonderful the people are. My brother joined me at Idaho State for his education and some of his and my friends followed. My best friends and mentors are people I met in Pocatello. I have nothing but fond memories of the five and half years I spent there. I could go on for pages and pages about experiences like these but I think you get the point.

I know this might not be everyone’s experience but this is my story. This is what I recall when I think of Pocatello. I want to invite everyone to sympathize with the recent incidents and do their part to avoid incidents like these in future. I want to invite everyone to read multiple stories and have an open mind. I want to invite everyone to not just share the news of hatred and discrimination but also share the stories of love and acceptance. Let’s share a balanced story.

Thank You Pocatello for making me feel welcome and at home. Thank you Pocatello community for helping me shape who I am today. Thank you for teaching me to be open and accepting. And finally, thank you for continuing to share your love and support to all the newcomers.