Long Island City, NY — A LaGuardia Community College student who fled the repressive country of Bhutan and went on to become the first woman among the Bhutanese asylum seekers in the United States to attend college, was awarded a coveted national scholarship.
Yeshey Pelzom, a 34-year-old married mother, is the recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, which will provide her with $30,000 a year throughout her undergraduate experience. The LaGuardia scholarship winner was one of 38 undergraduate transfer scholars selected from a field of 767 nominees from 438 community colleges.
“The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation was founded to support high achieving students with financial need,” said Matthew J. Quinn, the foundation’s executive director. “We hope these scholarships will allow the students the opportunity to fulfill their educational goals and become the individuals they aspire to be.”
For Yeshey, whose quiet and reserved demeanor belies a strong determination, the scholarship will help her to pursue the educational goal that she had to put off for 14 years. “Now that I am back in school after much struggle and almost after a point of no return,” she said, “there is no looking back.”
Her goal to pursue a college degree was derailed in 1990 when the then 18-year old freshman at a Bhutanese college was forced to flee the politically oppressive country. Yeshey traveled to India where she met up with her husband who left Bhutan six months earlier. There, the young couple lived for three years during which time Yeshey gave birth to their son. In 1993, the family left India for Nepal hoping, like many Bhutanese refugees, to receive the documentation required to emigrate to the United States.
While in Nepal she served as a volunteer for an organization that was aiding Bhutanese refugees. As a human rights advocate, she pleaded the cases of Bhutanese refugee women and called for civil and political rights in Bhutan before the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.
But the woman who loved books and education still yearned for a college diploma. “Even while being useful acting as a voice for my community, I felt absolute emptiness because my lack of higher education constantly gnawed my conscience,” she wrote in her scholarship essay. “I knew that the conference attendees would have responded better if I were an expert on those matters of political and human issues. No other time did I regret not having an education like during those days.”
In 2000 the family received the necessary documentation required to enter the United States but there was a hitch: only Yeshey’s papers came through. It would take another year for her husband to join her and five years before her son would receive permission to enter the U.S.
Without her family, Yeshey moved to an apartment in Queens and began the expensive and arduous process of gaining political asylum, which took three years. “The immigration procedure was my first priority and by the time I was successful in seeking asylum I was half drowned in debts,” she said.
Although Yeshey in 2001 was finally united with her husband, the couple’s continued financial worries, the long separation from her son, and a sudden illness took its toll on her and she fell into a deep depression. “Survival in New York City was not easy,” she said. “Beside the debts, I was guilty for not being able to assist my family.”
In hopes of lifting his wife’s mood, her husband bet that there was one thing that might lift her spirits: a return to college. “I thought I had given up the idea of going back to school,” said Yeshey, “but he persuaded me to pursue my degree.”
With that little encouragement and the courage to begin what she started 14 years ago, Yeshey, in September of 2004, began her freshman year at LaGuardia. “On the first day I was so nervous that I couldn’t go by train,” she said recalling the day that was a turning point in her life. “I had to take a taxi.”
But it took no time for Yeshey to jump into the role of student. She excelled, maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average throughout her stay on the college.
“Yeshey is an excellent student who works very hard, takes risks, challenges received opinion when necessary, and still manages to keep her balance,” said Professor Cecilia Macheski. “She writes eloquently, thinks deeply, and smiles with great warmth.”
She initially declared an education major but changed to liberal arts after attending an intensive five-week program at Vassar College. Through the college’s Exploring Transfer program, she and an elite group of LaGuardia students experienced first hand what it was like attending an academically challenging residential institution.
“The Exploring Transfer program changed me,” said Yeshey. “It built up my confidence and helped me realize my potential.”
Yeshey sees the total LaGuardia experience as life altering. “I do not think I could have found a better school,” she said. “The college’s diversity made me aware of my background and made me proud of who I am. It was here that I found myself.”
In 2005, life for Yeshey got even better when her son finally arrived in the United States.
With the family together once again and Yeshey completing her studies at LaGuardia this spring, the Pelzom’s will be following her academic dreams and moving to Altanta, Georgia where she will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English at Agnes Scott College, a woman’s liberal arts college.
And what is her long-term goal?
“Like all my professors who have boosted my ego, “I want to become a professor and be the one to inspire students like me, now,” she said. “I also want to write books to share my experiences of how my persistence to learn defeated all odds.”
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LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York, is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges. Its vibrant and culturally diverse student body, representing 159 countries and speaking 110 languages, has established LaGuardia as The World’s Community College.” The college provides a broad array of academic, workforce development, and continuing education programs to over 41,000 students. LaGuardia is located in the heart of western Queens. To learn about our exciting college, please go to www.laguardia.edu.
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is a private, independent foundation established in 2000 by the estate of Jack Kent Cooke to help young people of exceptional promise reach their full potential through education. It focuses on particular on students with financial need. Besides the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship Program, the foundation’s programs also include scholarships to graduate and high school students, and grants to organizations that serve high-achieving students with financial need. www.jackkentcookefoundation.org