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Nepal to Nebraska: Earthquake tragedy driving Shrestha to engineer safer future
A spoonful of rice, an indelible hum and a swaying chandelier.
Then, a thought: This is it. This is it.
“It” was the end of a life only 16 years lived. Except that, mercifully, it wasn’t.
Just a few minutes before noon on April 25, 2015, Yajyoo Shrestha was sitting down to eat with his family in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal and a city that nearly 1.5 million call home.
He had just scooped a first helping of lunch onto his plate when two of Earth’s own began violently scraping against each other roughly 50 miles to the northwest. The resulting energy, which would register as a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, raced toward Kathmandu.
Shrestha can remember the swinging of the light fixture above, the certainty it would plummet at any moment. He can call to mind “the weird humming that the Earth makes” when it quakes, the way it blended with the screams and shouts of family and neighbors to form a terrible ensemble that eventually dissipated but still reverberates.
“I had hopes of doing so many things in life,” the Husker said of his thinking then. “I had these dreams, realistic and unrealistic, set for myself: ‘Someday I’m gonna go places I’ve never been, do things I’ve never done.’ And in that moment, I was like, ‘I’m not gonna grow old. I’m never gonna see myself graduate from high school. I’ll never see the world like I’d hoped to. My life ends here.’”
Shrestha and his family would survive. More than 8,000 Nepalese would not. Countless would be left with no place to live, their homes among the more than 600,000 structures toppled by the quake. Several lethal aftershocks arrived in the following weeks.
“Everything came to a pause,” Shrestha said. “We were like, ‘We don’t care about school. We don’t care about work or anything else. It’s just about survival for now.’”
The quake had brought Kathmandu to its knees, but the city, after mourning the loss of so many lives and destruction of so many cultural touchstones, eventually regained its feet. Shrestha did, too, salvaging inspiration from the trauma and the tragedy.
“Up to that point, I was unsure about what I was going to do,” he said. “I had an idea that maybe I wanted to do civil engineering. But after the earthquake, and after so many people lost their lives, and after I saw so many houses tumble down, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is something that I do want.’
“It was an experience that definitely changed the way I look at life.”
Six years later, Shrestha is graduating with his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Nebraska, where he’ll also begin pursuing a master’s in structural engineering this fall. But his path to the Cornhusker State was far from a straight line. He’d never been to the United States; the idea of attending college there wasn’t on his radar even as he wrapped 10th grade and prepared for his next two years of school, which Nepalese typically attend at a university or college.
Then a friend mentioned a Cambridge-affiliated pre-university program that was gaining popularity in Nepal. Shrestha earned a scholarship and entered the program, whose highest-achieving students usually studied abroad. He eventually applied to multiple universities in the States, pop culture-inspired visions of California and New York dancing in his head. Rejections and a lack of scholarship support, though, forced him to take a gap year.
“Then I learned about the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. I said, ‘Sure, let’s give it a shot.’”
In exchange for that shot, Nebraska U offered Shrestha a scholarship package more generous than any other. So, by August 2017, he was jetting off for the States, connecting in Chicago before flying to Omaha. The final leg? A shuttle bus to Lincoln.
“And I just remember there being cornfields,” he said, wondering how many kernels of truth were hiding in the stereotypical jokes he’d heard about the place. “I was thinking, ‘Is this really what it’s like? I came for new experiences, for fun. I came for a busy city life. This is not what I had imagined.’ But that was just the initial impression.”
The differences between Kathmandu and Lincoln were real and undeniable. The cities, after all, were separated by more than 7,500 miles of distance, roughly 3,500 feet of elevation and more than 1 million people. By the time he arrived at his new academic home, Shrestha half-expected to learn that he’d be spending the next four years taking classes in just a handful of buildings.
Instead, some fellow Nepalese students he’d found over Facebook — and who were allowing him to crash at their place until his own housing opened up — began showing him around East Campus. When Shrestha learned that it was only part of the university, then saw the Nebraska Union while taking in City Campus, concern gave way to pleasant surprise.
That fall, about 15 fellow Nepalese freshmen enrolled at Nebraska. Those burgeoning friendships, along with the experience of International Orientation and his membership in the Nepalese Students Association, also quelled the early disquiet.
“That really did help us a lot,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without the initial support.”
That winter, Shrestha saw snow for the first time. Academically, he was experiencing another first: not knowing exactly where he resided in the scholastic pecking order. In Nepal, Shrestha was used to a system that ranked every student’s performance during an academic year. From first through 10th grade, he was top of his class. In 11th and 12th, he was top 3. It became, he admitted, a bit of an obsession.
“Now that I look back on it, I would say it was a little bit of an unhealthy expectation that I had of myself: ‘I have to be the absolute best. Nobody else can come first. I have to keep this position,’” he said. “Did that make me want to study more? Yes. But was that the healthiest way to go about it? Probably not.”
Without the pressure of a ranking system weighing on him at Nebraska, Shrestha decompressed and loosened up, realizing that he could learn to live with an A- or even a B+ every once in a while.
“I was the smartest kid in the class (back home), but I had to realize at some point that I was not the smartest in the world,” he said. “That was a really important ego check and reality check for me. You can be good. You can try to be better than yourself. But you don’t have to be better than everybody else.”
Even if he wasn’t the best, though, his best seemed to be more than enough throughout his first two years at Nebraska. The second semester of his sophomore year, he earned his first 4.0 GPA. The following summer, Shrestha became the first-ever Nepalese orientation leader with New Student Enrollment.
“I have a story to tell, and you don’t see a lot of people from Nepal,” he said. “You don’t necessarily see a lot of people who look like me and value the things that I do. Something that I’ve always been big about is representing my country, being a voice for my country. I knew I had to be the first one.
“I was like, ‘This is me at my prime. Everything is going so well. I’m just killing the college game.’”
Yet Shrestha was about to face a wholly unfamiliar challenge that would leave him struggling to keep his feet. The beginning of his third year was making him feel like a third-rate student.
“When I reached my junior year, I was like, ‘Now I definitely know I’m not the smartest,’” he said. “The question was, ‘Am I dumbest?’”
His kryptonite? The four-credit course CIVE 341: Introduction to Structural Engineering, taught by the fittingly named Joshua Steelman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.
“Every homework (assignment),” he said, “I’d sit down, start the homework, and I’d have tears in my eyes, like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Other moments gave him pause, too, like when he saw classmates opening their laptops, pulling up YouTube and scrolling through recommendations full of engineering videos. His own recommendations were full of ballroom dancing videos — he’d become a member of the UNL Ballroom Team — and movie trailers. Was he single-minded enough to become an engineer? Was he in the wrong field? Should he switch majors? Could he afford to switch majors?
And for the first time in his life, he was constantly having to ask for help: from classmates, from teaching assistants, from Steelman during office hours. The latter felt like admitting to himself — and maybe worse, revealing to Steelman — that he wasn’t nearly as smart as he’d once believed.
“‘If I can’t solve this on my own, maybe I’m not good enough,’” Shrestha said of his thinking at the time. “That was my narrative the entire semester — until the end, when I was like, ‘This is it, though. This is me learning.’ You’re not expected to know everything in the beginning. This is why we’re taking the class. This is where we get to learn.”
Though he did “horribly” on the first exam, his willingness to ask for help, combined with a newfound mettle — Never give up. Just keep going. You never know what’s going to happen next, he told himself — ultimately prevailed. He was ready to gladly accept a B in the course. Anything but a C would do.
“And then I saw an A,” he said, “and I literally recorded myself jumping up and down, because I was so excited.”
As thrilled as he was, Shrestha said the course meant far more to him than just a grade or even the copious content knowledge he picked up during those arduous 16 weeks. It reignited and reaffirmed his passion for structural engineering, he said, in a way that prior engineering courses — the ones he sailed through while plugging numbers into equations — never could.
“With (CIVE 341), it was like, ‘I want to know how to do this.’ And the fact that I could not initially, and the fact that I was struggling to know why things were happening, is why I got more interested in it,” he said. “Because I really need to know how things are working. I want to know why things happen the way they do.
“As challenging as the class was, I will always be grateful for it.”
Steelman’s tutelage also convinced Shrestha that Nebraska was the place to pursue his master’s. In just a few months, Shrestha will also begin a research assistantship with the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. Though probably best known for designing the life-saving SAFER barriers that line NASCAR and IndyCar tracks, the facility also engineers and evaluates a range of components designed to protect highway motorists.
He’ll be taking that assistantship, and entering the master’s program, with Steelman as his adviser.
“It’s like a full-circle moment,” Shrestha said. “I was always intimidated by him as a professor. I see him as a mentor now.”
Shrestha isn’t sure whether he’ll remain in the States, return to Nepal or even end up elsewhere after finishing his master’s. His life to this point has taught him to take the upcoming day at face value, he said, and do it again when the next one arrives. That doesn’t stop his family from asking the question, especially given that his first return trip to Nepal, planned for this summer, was derailed by the pandemic. For now, with COVID-19 cases rising again in Nepal, Shrestha said he can’t risk the chance of being unable to get back in time for the fall semester.
The ache of going four years without seeing his parents and two sisters in person is acute enough, he said, that he tries not to think about it much. But until he can, he said the relationships he’s formed at the university — with the Nepalese community, especially, but also friends and classmates and professors the world over — are sustaining him, even as they help him realize dreams he once feared would be dashed in rubble.
“I’m thankful for my family, who believed in me more than I believed in myself,” he said. “And I’m thankful for everybody I’ve met at Nebraska, because everybody has had a part to play in me becoming who I am today.
“It’s very funny, because there’s always a reason — everything leads up to specific things in life. I (once) thought, ‘I don’t believe in those things,’ but life has its own path, and sometimes it’s just magical how things turn out.”