A Perfect Storm: How 61 Nepali students lost full-rides to UT Tyler

The University of Texas at Tyler’s presidential office is immaculate, surrounded by impenetrable glass doors and walls. It’s tucked into a corner of Stewart Hall, separated from the noise one floor below of college students buzzing about assignments they’re sure they failed. Compared to the clamor below, this office seems sterile. Instead of an open room that smells like coffee and decorated in blues, oranges and comfortable plush chairs, the president’s office greets you with the UT Tyler seal emblazoned on the wall, staring down at you and dominating the room. An administrative assistant sits at a desk, her movements as sharp as the sounds her keyboard makes. Everything has its place, filed away and perfectly neat. It is organized, stagnant. In this place, it is difficult to believe that only a floor below the heart of this campus beats: the roar of students laughing, talking and comparing grades.

This is something that 61 international Nepali students will never experience.

The two women sit on the blue sofa in the Honors lounge, both wearing long sleeves in the 88-degree Texas weather. To them, it’s cold. They are leaning together, hands clasped in their laps. They’re looking at each other, a secret smile shared between them as if they’re privy to a joke.

“It’s just tasteless, kind of,” Mallika Mainani says, talking about the food in UT Tyler’s cafeteria. In Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, they don’t eat hamburgers and pizza for meals; American foods are considered snacks. “It doesn't even feel like we’ve eaten something.”

“A meal isn’t complete for us without rice and pulses,” Merisha Subedi adds.

For them, meals in their respective districts of Chabahil and Thankot are a spicy blend of pulses - liquefied legumes - and curries with rice garnished with a --

“What do you call a ‘achaar’?” Mainani says, turning to Subedi, her hands and mouth both making the shape, searching for the word in English.

“A pickle,” Subedi supplies.

Food has been one of the hardest realities these students have had to adjust to - aside from drinking cold milk instead of hot milk, using ice in their drinks, and being 8,281 miles from home.

Subedi came to UT Tyler to study finance. She is the first in her family to come to the United States for her higher education.

Coming to Texas from Nepal isn’t an uncommon experience; in fact, Texas currently holds the biggest Nepali international student population. Out of 15,000 in the United States, 3,000 go to colleges in Texas.

But why UT Tyler?

“The scholarships,” Mainani answers.

In May, 93 Nepali students received an email from UT Tyler President Michael Tidwell, congratulating each of them for earning a Presidential Fellow scholarship. This new prestigious scholarship Tidwell launched is exclusively for incoming first-year students in the 2018-2019 academic year and requires a minimum 1350 on the SAT.

“It is my sincerest honor to congratulate you on earning the Presidential Fellow scholarship,” the email reads, “This means our university and hopefully your new home for the next four years is taking care of your tuition, fees, housing, meal plan, and books!"

For many students, like Subedi and Mainani, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. By American standards, they are considered lower income; some families of four only bring home $350 a month. International tuition at UT Tyler costs $27,000 per year.

“I couldn’t save for university even if I wanted to,” says a student from Nepal who wishes to remain anonymous. In their culture, students do not work while they study. If he had wanted to go to college, he would have had to live with his family, unable to earn money.

To even get a chance for a scholarship, many, if not all, of these Nepali students take a gap year between graduating from high school and applying for colleges. During this time, they take three to four months of intensive study to prepare for their SATs and the TOEFL - a test that guarantees they have English mastery.

Subedi and Mainani both struggled with the gap year. In Nepal, high school counselors don’t remind you to take your practice SAT tests or to do worksheets on the English language. For these women, they had to do it all themselves.

“One interview can ruin your entire year’s hard work,” Mainani says, recalling the stress of applying for her student visa. “It’s nerve-wracking.”

Once they applied to UT Tyler and were accepted, the women were then put into a group chat with at least another 80 Nepali students who were also awarded the Presidential Fellow scholarship. Nepali UT Tyler seniors were added to the group chat to help guide the matriculated students through questions they had.

It’s quiet, the seniors would tell the students to calm their nerves; it’s quiet so you can adjust easier.

And it’s affordable.

“Meeting the needs of Texas students will always be our priority,” Tidwell writes in an April 29 email update to the faculty at UT Tyler, “but we recognize the critical benefit of a culturally and globally diverse student body. For this reason, we opened up the Presidential Fellowship to international students.”

A festival takes place in Kathmandu on April 13, Nepali New Year’s Eve. The 93 Nepali Presidential Fellows are celebrating, staying up to see the dawn of the new year.

“The interest in this scholarship, among international students, was more than 100 times that of any previous year for our top merit awards,” Tidwell's email continues, “Interest was exceptionally high from the nation of Nepal.”

Over the Kathmandu skyline, fireworks explode into a thousand sparks, falling like tiny stars to the tops of the pagoda-style buildings. The parties spill into the streets, full of music, dancing and strobe lights. In the commercial district of Thamel, a concert rages through the night.

“Unfortunately,” Tidwell’s email reads, “we initially awarded more international Presidential Fellowships than our budget would allow.”

On New Year’s Day in Nepal, 61 Nepali students wake to find an email that will change the course of their lives:

“...funds for the Presidential Fellows Program are no longer available, and we will not be able to offer you the Presidential Fellows Scholarship.”

Lucas Roebuck, the vice president of Marketing at UT Tyler, looks like the statue of Atlas he keeps on a table in his office: worn, haggard and bearing the weight of the world. He has a determined walk, brusque and to the point, just like the way he speaks. Next to Atlas, a pamphlet with the new UT Tyler logo on it states, in bold type: “The only thing that matters to us is your success.”

The morning has passed in a frenzy. His phone buzzes and chimes non-stop. “This is VIP stuff,” he says quickly, walking past his administrative assistant, detailing a project she must complete for Tidwell within the morning, no exceptions.

Roebuck is the spokesman for UT Tyler. His title includes “Communication Specialist.” He is the only person who can give any information on the Nepali student scholarship incident. An adviser at the Office of International Programs says, no one else can speak on things “considered controversial.”

He was recruited by Tidwell to help implement his strategic plan. For Roebuck, this means student success, benefiting the economy around East Texas, community engagement, and research and scholarship.

“I think there was a confluence of-of a perfect storm that came together to create this oversight,” Roebuck says.

What oversight?

An oversight of $5 million that UT Tyler did not have but offered to the Nepali students.

Roebuck attributes the lapse to four issues: no accurate predictive data, an “independent marketing” effort on part of the Nepal seniors already at UT Tyler, internal communication issues and rolling scholarships - meaning that scholarships were awarded automatically by admissions counselors without being vetted by anyone else.

“In our previous international awards, we would have two applicants, three applicants, you know, three would be great,” Roebuck says, talking about the previous international scholarship offer: The Regent’s Award, a $4,000 scholarship per year. “Nobody expected, based on what we knew, that we would have such high demand.”

No statistical research was done on the demand a full-ride scholarship like the Presidential Fellows would have.

There was no, as Roebuck puts it, “LCD board hanging up on the wall that gave us a regular, hey, ding, we got another admission.” It wasn’t until halfway through the spring semester that the number of scholarships given out could begin to affect the budget.

“There was very little melt,” Roebuck explains. When students receive scholarships, most universities ask for a confirmation fee to confirm a commitment from the applicant. ‘Melt’ is the number of students who pay their confirmation fees versus the number of students who were offered scholarships. According to Roebuck, many universities over-offer their scholarships and plan for this melt of students to help them reach their initial quota.

Virtually every Nepali student paid their confirmation fee.

UT Tyler works in conjunction with the National Associate for College Admission Counseling to assure that the admissions program is both ethical and fair. NACAC argued that this UT Tyler broke two ethical codes: one, colleges are not allowed to ask for a confirmation fee before May 1 and two, colleges cannot withdraw or rescind offers before May 1.

“It’s a voluntary organization,” Roebuck says, arms crossed against his chest, “Did we violate an ethics policy? I’m gonna make the case and say no, we didn’t.” Roebuck states breaking ethical codes implies being intentionally deceptive. While UT Tyler did send out letters requiring the Presidential Fellows to give a confirmation fee before May 1, Roebuck says NACAC warned them that the confirmation fee was breaking their code. UT Tyler immediately sent out a letter rescinding the requirement of paying that fee, at least until May 1.

Many of the students had already paid. Many more had already gotten their I-20 form. This form is a requirement to get a student visa and proves that a student is legally enrolled in a university.

“We really don’t look at students differently international versus domestic [when it comes to recruiting],” Roebuck says. The differences between the two groups consist mostly of paperwork and finances; international students need visas and cost the university more money. Domestic students get financial aid, something international students can’t take advantage of.

In a previous interview, Roebuck had stated that international students were a “completely separate budget priority.”

Roebuck affirms this when explaining why only international students - most from Nepal, two others from broader Asia - had their scholarships reoffered. If two American students get financial aids, the university is reimbursed money since the grants already covered part of their tuition. This essentially means that two or more American students can go to college for the price of one international student.

In Texas, public universities receive subsidies for every credit hour that a Texan student takes.

“Our primary mission is East Texas,” Roebuck states, leaning forward, hands fisted and tapping the table with each word. “That money is for Texas students … As you think about priorities, absolutely the East Texas students come before the international students.”

The group chat is in an uproar. The students think it’s a joke.

They hope it’s just a joke.

They already paid their confirmation fees, for their housing. They had their I-20 forms. They got scholarships. That had to mean they were accepted, right?

After a few hours, they realize: this was undeniably real. It shocks them all. The anonymous Nepali student had two close friends who got the email. Now he was going to an unfamiliar place, full of new people, unsure of how he was going to fit in, with no friends to make it easier.

No other emails arrived, nothing to explain what happened. Only this:

“We apologize for the inconvenience and wish you the best in your higher education endeavors.”

Even the UT Tyler seniors had gone quiet.

These students were given the option of the Patriot Scholarship, a $5,000 three-year renewable endowment and in-state tuition.

That leaves a gap of $12,000 or more.

Subedi and Mainani both began panicking. They had not received an email rescinding their scholarship offer, but it could change at any moment. Were they next?

The group chat continued messaging, trying to figure out what happened. It became clear: all Nepali students with less than 1410 on their SAT had had their scholarship rescinded.

Mainani’s score was 1410.

Tidwell, in an email to faculty and staff, announced that the average incoming Presidential Fellow scored in the 97th percentile on the SATs. The average score for the 97th percentile is 1400-1450.

“We couldn’t trust UT Tyler,” Subedi said. The Nepali women waited for weeks, terrified their scholarships would get revoked.

They never were. Yet, the fear lingered; not just among the students, but among Nepali visa officials, too.

“They asked me, ‘Do you still have your scholarship?’” said the anonymous student. He showed the officials the letter UT Tyler had given him, confirming that he was still a Presidential Fellows recipient.

The officials told him they had to confirm with the university and gave him a pink slip - a hold on the already stressful process.

One student, Roman Shrestha, who had his scholarships rescinded, tweeted, “I just wonder, what if we were American, would they have done the same for us?”

Mainani felt the same. Only Asian students had their scholarships revoked.

In a statement later released, UT Tyler made it clear that no American students had lost their scholarship.

A thousand criticisms of UT Tyler flew from across the globe. Was this discrimination? Why didn’t UT Tyler reject the Nepali students instead of taking away their scholarships? Where were the scholarship donors? The crowd-funding? Why couldn’t money be transferred from other programs? Why wasn’t UT Tyler doing more to help these students?

Where was the wait list these students could have been put on, Subedi pondered?

“These students who had their scholarships revoked,” Subedi emphasizes, her hands punctuating each word with passion, “They had no other options.”

Mainani knows another student who had a scholarship to a different university that he turned down the week before getting his UT Tyler scholarship rescinded.

“I’m getting a full ride at [UT Tyler],” she mimics, “So why would I go to this university where I have to pay?”

Tweets posted by the rejected students sent the media, both Nepali and internationally, into turmoil. The 61 students began a hashtag, #savethesixty. They threw accusations at UT Tyler and cries for justice for themselves.

“We didn’t have the power to do anything,” Mainani said. Nepal is a small country. She states that if the American students had their scholarships taken away, they would have been able to fight back and take action. What can these students do, 8,000 miles away with only their voices?

Apparently, a lot.

Hearing the outcry of the Nepali students, universities began to offer help. Through the generosity of Texas Christian University, Denver University and colleges in South Korea and Qatar, almost all the students were placed, with scholarships.

Even still, a dozen or more Nepali students were not placed, left at home with no scholarships and no plans.

“These universities already had their budgets fixed,” Mainani said, her venom thinly veiled, “But they figured out a way to accept those students.”

The two Nepali women sit in a conference room, both still in long sleeves and now laughing over the workload in one of their Honors classes. They didn’t know if they wanted to come to UT Tyler after what they saw happen to the other 60 students. It was discouraging, and the Nepali citizens had made sure to remind the women of UT Tyler’s infamy. The women began to even question if they wanted to study abroad at all.

“The same thing could happen to us in a year or so,” Mainani says. Though she laughs as she says it, her body language tells a different story - she fidgets, her eyes train on a wall.

Behind Subedi and Mainani, through the glass window, the sun shines through the glass window, illuminating students walking to their cars with heavy backpacks and the Alumni House that sits like a crown jewel on the front lawn. What they don’t see is below them, directly under the window they’re sitting against, is UT Tyler’s Alumni wall. It’s a wall filled with thousands of engraved names on silver plaques - each one someone who has graduated from UT Tyler.

Maybe, one day, their names will be on it, too.

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