Top of the Curve
The Santa Fe New Mexican[Sunday, June 01, 2003 10:30]
Tenzin Tangchen Dera, 18, is graduating today from the New Mexico Academy for Sciences and Mathematics. She is one of five students in the school's first graduating class and will attend Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo. - Kathy De La Torre | The New Mexican
Tenzin Tangchen Dera, 18, is graduating today from the New Mexico Academy for Sciences and Mathematics. She is one of five students in the school's first graduating class and will attend Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo. - Kathy De La Torre | The New Mexican
Tenzin Tangchen Dera, of Tibetan descent, proves herself wrong when accomplishments exceed her childhood expectations


Long ago, Tenzin Yangchen Dera figured she would wind up like most Tibetan girls in India. She would drop out of boarding school, weave carpets and marry by 25, living the rest of her life with her husband's family.

Or, if she were fortunate, she might graduate with high scores, secure a sponsor for college, work in a Tibetan settlement office and marry the man her family picked for her.

As Yangchen graduates today from New Mexico Academy for Sciences and Mathematics and turns her mind toward Colorado College, she has plenty of life changes to digest.

"Seven years back, I would have never imagined I'd be going to a private college in America or driving a car at age 18," she said in an interview at her home this week.

Under the 1990 Tibetan Settlement Project, the United States opened its doors to 1,000 Tibetans. Her mother was one of them.

When Yangchen arrived in Santa Fe with her father and two siblings, she was 13. On one hand, she rejoiced in seeing her mother, who emigrated two years beforehand. But part of her was sad. She didn't realize her grandparents would stay behind in India.

Yangchen entered Larragoite Elementary unable to understand spoken English. She could read and write a little English, however.

"I didn't speak up in class," she said. "I was quiet. Always in the corner."

And without Tibetans to talk with in her first language - she was the only one at school other than her brother and sister - she said she felt like an outcast.

Two years passed before she felt comfortable in school and appreciated the favorite food of her peers. The first time she was served pepperoni pizza the very sight of it confused her: She mistook the sausages for tomatoes and thought they were sprinkled on top of an omelet and bread.

"It tasted horrible," she said.

From then on, she always brought her lunch.

"It was hard for me to get adapted to American culture and still stay grounded in my own culture," Yangchen said.

On weekends, she takes Tibetan language classes, learns dances and participates in traditional celebrations and prayers. Sometimes she questions her past beliefs, she said, and her parents worry she is becoming too Westernized.

"We live in a different country. It's inevitable for us to change," she said.

When she moves to Colorado Springs to attend Colorado College, she might be the only Tibetan on campus. She plans to pack Tibetan books, music and a guitar and recite ritual prayers. She might even start a Tibetan Club, as she did at New Mexico Academy.

"I am so good at cooking," she said. "I might do some cooking for them."

Yangchen aspires to become a physician or a biologist, which might be more conducive to her desire to travel to Tibet and Zimbabwe. Later on, marriage sounds good, but she wants a "love marriage," not an arranged marriage.

"I'd love to marry someone who's Tibetan. But to be honest, I'll marry the guy I fall in love with," she said.

Yangchen gleaned benefits from both educational systems.

In boarding school, she learned the history of how Chinese treated Tibetans as second-class citizens and tortured them in their own country. One of her friends had a frostbitten foot from crossing the Himalaya Mountains.

"It was a great learning experience," she said in hindsight, though it made her unhappy at the time.

On the downside, she saw her parents once every two months. And teachers were allowed to strike students, she said.

Here, she formed relationships with teachers she never could have made in India. American teachers are kind and helpful, she said. She can talk to them about her personal problems.

"You don't fear them as much. That makes you speak up in class," she said.

One person who will be cheering at today's graduation is Caroline Miller, a tutor from St. Bede's Episcopal Church, who spent two hours every Wednesday with Yangchen at Ortiz Middle School and over the summer.

English, Yangchen's third language (she also speaks Tibetan and Hindi), stood between her and her mind when it came to math, science and language arts, the subjects in which Miller tutored her. But even in eighth grade, she talked of becoming an ophthalmologist and studying at Harvard.

"She needed to know everything about the atmosphere," recalled Miller. "She wanted to know a lot more than I knew."

Finding the courage to be vocal in class didn't happen until Yangchen entered New Mexico Academy the following year. Classes were smaller, and she had to present science-fair projects to fellow students and parents.

In this school of 85 students, she found no social segregation and loads of friendliness.

"That's one reason why I fell in love with the school," she said.

She is of one of five students in the Academy's first graduating class. A gated campus beholden to architectural sophistication and marble interior accents on Old Santa Fe Trail, the private college-preparatory school opened in 1998. Several students, such as Yangchen, attend on scholarships.

At first, she was lost in her classes and lagged behind her peers. "I was working hard every night to catch up with them, and I did," she said.

She often studied three hours a night. One time she stared at her biology textbook for two hours and cried because she couldn't come up with the answer. Her teacher, Carlos Santistevan, told her, "It will get easier."

Yangchen's tenacity paid off with a $23,000-a-year scholarship for four years, making it possible for her to attend her top-choice college. Annual tuition at Colorado College is $27,270.

"My high-school years were amazing," she said. "I had a great time in high school."

Her father, Lobsang Chonphel, was pleased to see his daughter finish homework quickly in public school and bring home A's. But he worried that the English as a Second Language classes were too simple for her. And her fellow students lacked respect for teachers.

The family was drawn to the academy because of its math and science emphasis - as well as its sense of discipline. Yangchen entered the school after one year at Ortiz Middle School.

"It's a great school," he said. "The method of teaching is totally different than India. Here, the kids learn more."

Yangchen, who was born in India, has never been to Tibet. Her grandparents escaped the night before her grandfather was supposed to be imprisoned. "The Chinese would punish the rich people and give their money to the servants," she said.

Her grandmother gave birth to her father shortly after completing the trek from Tibet to India. Eventually, he earned a college degree in mathematics, the first in his family.

For a moment, Yangchen contemplates worlds apart.

"People have a busy life here," she said. "Life goes so fast compared to Bhandara (India). And I can't believe I'm graduating right now."