TRiO program fuels college dreams

Tenzin Choerap
Tenzin Choerap, left, leads Team Tibet while Youth Radio reporter Mara Kumagai Fink interviews him.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

By: Mara Kumagai Fink
Minnesota Public Radio

Northfield, Minn. - When it comes to college, students of color in Minnesota face longer odds than their white peers.

Less than half of students of color graduate from high school on time. Of those who go on to a Minnesota college, the gap in graduate rates between whites and minorities is 15 percent.

The TRiO program is trying to improve those statistics. TRiO is a federal program that targets low-income and first-generation students and helps them get into college. It grew out of the War on Poverty in the 1960s.

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Tenzin Choerap and TRiO tutor
Melissa Hinderscheit, right, became Tenzin Choerap's TRiO mentor when he was a junior in high school. She also attended St. Olaf College through the TRiO program.
MPR Photo/Mara Kumagai Fink

In Minnesota, about 15,000 students now participate. This is the story of one of them -- Tenzin Choerap.

Just about everyone at St. Olaf College in Northfield knows Choerap. Kids call out to him across campus, and he seems right at home on the hill. But his road to Northfield wasn't an easy one.

Choerap was born in India, where his family settled after fleeing Tibet. His father was part of a special resettlement of Tibetan refugees in the United States in the early 1990s. Choerap and the rest of the family stayed behind in India. When Choerap was 10, they joined his dad in Minneapolis.

"Getting off from the airplane, meeting my dad, and then getting in car he drove, I was just so happy," recalled Choerap. "Driving down 35W across the downtown, it was so pretty. On the road there's no garbage hanging around, it was very clean. My first reaction was it is actually true that people do have a good life here."

"If you climb a mountain, you can't just leave everyone else behind. You have to pull them up."

Choerap started school in Minneapolis. In eighth grade, he caught the eye of tutors working for TRiO. They offered academic support and mentoring to help him get to college.

Choerap's parents signed him up. They were both teachers back in India. Choerap's mother, Rigzin Dolma, said when starting over in a new country, education is more valuable than money.

"Education is like giving you an eye, you know? If you have no education, you're like blind. Even you have everything you can see, it's opening your eyes," Dolma said.

To develop that eye, Choerap first had to envision his own future. He wanted to be a football player, then a pilot who could fly the kind of Boeing 747 that carried him to America.

"It had an upper level, and I remember going up and looking at it. I was mesmerized by the size and the stature of it. That drew me in," remembered Choerap.

In high school, his interests turned to architecture and engineering. Choerap says TRiO kept pushing him to dream about what was next.

Choerap tutors a high school student
Every other Friday, Tenzin Choerap, left, and a group of St. Olaf and Carleton College students tutor high school students at the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

"It's funny, before TRiO I never really actually thought about high school when I was in middle school, and college when I was in high school, so TRiO really was like someone poking you saying, 'Hey, now you've got to think about this,'" he said.

In ninth grade, Choerap began telling his mentors he was worried about paying for college. His parents were supporting family members back in India, and paying tuition for his two older sisters to attend the University of St. Thomas.

Choerap wasn't sure about setting his sights on an expensive private school. A scholarship from TRiO helped bring St. Olaf College within reach.

"When you're in high school and you're just scared to death about how you're going to pay $40,000 a year ...that type of news really helps motivate you more to look for these colleges," he said.

TRiO helped Choerap get into a competitive college, and figure out financial aid. But sticking with college can come down to more personal things, like fitting in.

A summer program for incoming TRiO students meant Choerap already had friends on the first day of school.

"When school started, it was like, 'Oh hey, I know you.' So when you see these students in the classroom you do feel comfortable -- when you're not the only one who has a black head, or an accent when you speak in front of the class," Choerap said.

Now he's a junior majoring in mathmatics with a concentration in business management. He has set his sights on graduate school, with the help of TRiO. He hopes to use his business skills to own a Tibetan restaurant someday.

Choerap wants other young Tibetans to have these opportunities too. He and some students from St. Olaf and Carleton College have started a Friday night tutoring program in the Twin Cities for college-bound Tibetan teens.

"We call it Lamton. In Tibetan, that means 'guidance.'"

Choerap said it's his own version of a TRiO program for them.

"If you climb a mountain, you can't just leave everyone else behind, you have to pull them up," he said.

For Choerap, scaling mountains can happen, even on the prairie.

View an audio slideshow of Tenzin Choerap's journey to America.