Throughout history some of Asia's greatest political transformations have been foreign-educated leaders and intellectuals. They went abroad to study, gained international exposure, then chose to heed their nation's call.
Since the 1950s, however, the movement is in the other direction. Despite the risks involved, the potential for personal advancement draws thousands of talented and educated individuals from developing nations to Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States.
In Nepal, the graduates of Budhanilkantha School represent the cream of the nation's student crop. Each year the school produces Harvard and Oxford calibre candidates, as indicated by the significant number of students leaving to pursue higher education at top universities in the US and other countries.
The cost of their decision to migrate, pursue careers and eventually settle in these nations is borne most heavily by Nepal.
Though foreign remittance is a positive contribution to the economy, the brain drain ultimately is a cost to the state. Have students from Budhanilkantha and other schools become Arnikos? Are they captivated by the dream of freedom and prosperity as Arniko was, lured by a Chinese emperor's promises of a beautiful wife and gold?
A few years ago, a Nepali politician addressed a convention organised by the Society of Ex-Budhanilkantha School Students- North America (SEBS-NA) and All Nepalese Association (ANA) in Philadelphia. He reprimanded the crowd of mostly Budhanilkantha graduates, proclaiming his utter disgust with the nation's "karnadhars" wasting their talent in a foreign land. How justifiable was his proclamation?
More than half of all Budhanilkantha alumni are presently pursuing careers in Nepal, but this does not take into account an accelerated exodus of students abroad, particularly to the United States. Until the early 1990s, the trend for these students after high school was to attend universities affiliated with Tribhuvan University or study abroad in England and India. The British government refused to issue work permits to international students, ensuring most students returned to Nepal. Then in 1992, Britain terminated its scholarship packages, and the students were readily accepted by American colleges and universities which sought talented foreign students providing scholarships and grants. Today, up to 40 percent of Budhanilkantha students go the US for higher studies where there are presently more than 300 Budhanilkantha graduates either studying or working.
It is not difficult to figure out why Budhanilkantha graduates are opting to stay abroad. But the issue remains: after years of work experience and becoming financially independent, is there any likelihood that these graduates will return? There is a similar trend among Chinese and Indian students in the United States to stay on. So, the brain drain is not a phenomenon restricted to Nepal. However, the cumulative impact of our best and brightest not returning is more severe on Nepal. The state invested in their minds, and the state is not getting much back. And for it to happen, it is clear that the state needs to create the conditions so that the young Nepalis will want to return.
However, Budhanilkantha graduates still keep a strong attachment to all things Nepali. Whether it is a film studies major with dreams of producing a movie featuring women's empowerment, graduates discussing Nepal's current situation in a coffee house in Time Square, organising events promoting Nepali culture in colleges, or putting together discussion programs on the insurgency, democracy or monarchy, our students value their precious links to home.
Visit the Society of Ex-Budhanilkantha School (SEBS) Students web page (www.sebsonline.org) and you can see a vibrant debate on Nepal. Students who have just arrived in the US sharing experiences, others contributing to debates in the Nepali media about caste, ethnicity, development and politics. Through the website, donations have been raised for Budhanilkantha School and sponsorship of 147 students in remote districts for the National Scholarship Program run by SEBS.
Some of the debates also focus on the graduates themselves, their future plans, and where returning to Nepal fits in. They must balance their personal plans, aspirations, careers, and the tug of a motherland that needs them now more than ever before. The pressure is certainly on.
Returning to Nepal offers no guarantees. Certainly they will develop mixed emotions regarding work and experience frustration due to the country's situation, or not earning enough. Yet, there are varying degrees of frustration everywhere. The mark of critical and innovative thinkers is the ability to create personal opportunities where none exist, rather than relying on the nation to do something for them. The measure of a productive and dignified life is the honest mastery over one's own life. And for this, Nepal offers plenty of scope.
When asked what his message to SEBS members in the United States and Australia would be, graduate Suman Meher Shrestha, an architect and planner for the Asia-Urban Programme in Patan, replies: "Guys, this is YOUR home! Wake up and realise your responsibility towards your country. Your little contribution could make a big change for national development. There are a lot of career prospects in our country too.Your country is calling: come home!"
(Phudorji Lama Sherpa graduated from the Budhanilkantha Class of 1999. He is currently doing his Bachelors degree in Asian history at Wesleyan University in the US.)