Global Citizen Soldier
by Jeffrey Billman | photos by Scott Cook
They’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan, trained in Nepal and England, and been stationed in Iceland and Germany—all before even setting foot on campus. Here are the stories of three of the more than 50 current Rollins students who served in the military, and how their service experiences are shaping their studies.
SANJAY RANA ’14 is probably more interesting than you, more cultured than you, in better shape than you, and has more stamps in his passport than you. He speaks five languages—Nepali, English, Hindi, and some Italian and Japanese.
And in May, Rana will graduate with honors with a degree in economics.
Rana’s improbable journey—the boy born into a middle-class family in Kathmandu, Nepal, a chaotic city of poverty and inequality and despair, who came of age in a vicious civil war and ended up halfway around the world, talking to me in a sushi joint on Park Avenue about how he ended up at Rollins College—would make for a hell of a novel. But the reality of it is far more interesting.
And just as interesting is what he wants to do with his degree. It has little to do with money. It has everything to do with making the world a better place. Once you get to know him, you’ll have little doubt that he’ll do exactly what he says.
“In a word, it’s chaos,” Rana tells me of his hometown. Kathmandu is, as the crow flies, some 8,443 miles from where we’re now sitting. In a sense, it could reside in another universe altogether. “It’s a developing country,” he says, “so [there’s] a lot of hustle and bustle.”
There is a lot of poverty in Nepal, a wide gulf between rich and poor, but his family was neither. While he was growing up, his father worked on the ground crew for an airline; his mother was a homemaker. His parents were both uneducated, but they pushed young Sanjay to read and enrolled him in a Jesuit boarding school when he was 6. They encouraged his academic pursuits because they knew education was the only way out.
His education sparked a desire to leave Nepal and head west. When he graduated, he applied to several colleges in the U.S., but he didn’t get the scholarships needed. “At that point in my life, my family could not even afford my ticket to come here,” he says. “I needed to up my résumé a little bit more so I could get a better [academic opportunity] someday.”
There was more to it though. His family had fallen on hard times, and Rana felt an obligation to stay there and help provide for them. And he knew that there was a pretty secure way to do so—one that would also burnish his résumé: the military. Specifically, the officer corps.
“In Nepal,” he explains, “after you join the officer corps—if you get in—it’s a lifelong career because you can go all the way to a general.”
The drawback was that the country was then consumed in a bloody, decade-long civil war. Maoist rebels from poor, rural areas, aggrieved over the gaping economic inequality, were fighting to overthrow the monarchist government. And so he waited until the very last moment before enrolling.
“The officer corps was seen as very respectable,” Rana says, “so all the good families wanted to send their kids, wanted to marry their daughters to army officers. That was before the war. But when I joined [the army] it was completely different. People were scared; people were being killed.”
The training was brutal—compressed into a yearlong program to ready soldiers for the war, instead of the traditional, well-rounded two-year program. There was hazing, beatings, and harassment of newbies. Rana found this environment off-putting. He also felt pangs of sympathy for those he was being trained to kill.
“[In] the army, people really hated the Maoists, and I really felt empathetic to the Maoists because I’ve seen the reality—how poor people were—and I got where they were coming from,” he says.
He never saw combat. In late 2005, a few months before he was scheduled to graduate training, he was sent off to Britain. By the time he returned, the war was over.
In other words, if he made it his future was set.
The competition was rigorous. Candidates were evaluated not just on military leadership talent but also on their English-speaking ability and debating skill. Rana worked hard, and within a few months he was selected for Sandhurst.
He spent about a year and a half in England; his expenses were paid and he was given a generous stipend, which allowed him to send money home. Sandhurst’s model is “serve to lead,” and the emphasis is very much on leadership: being inspirational rather than direct and stern like Patton.
It was there, at Sandhurst, that Rana became friends with Prince William, who was training in his company. “It was just fascinating to me to have him around and to see him,” he says. There were times when Rana would be placed in charge of the prince during exercises, and he would order him around. And then there were the formalities: dinners with Prince Charles, lunch with the queen, and meeting William’s then-girlfriend, Kate.
“It was completely different from Nepal,” Rana says, which is quite the understatement.
After he finished Sandhurst, Rana enrolled in a survival course for platoon commanders. It was supposed to last two and a half months, but he didn’t finish. One day, while he was carrying his bag, his hand went completely numb. The straps were too tight, and his hand was paralyzed from nerve damage. He couldn’t move a single finger for three weeks.
“I was in a hospital in Wales with no one coming to visit me,” he recalls. “It was a scary moment because I was in this room with three other people who were likely on their deathbeds. And I couldn’t move my hand at all. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get that back.”
But he did. It wasn’t an easy road back. There were months of physical therapy, both in England and later in Nepal. In time, however, the nerves healed. “That just brought a lot of things into perspective,” he says. “I don’t get as scared as I did before. I used to worry a lot. … [Now] I don’t worry at all.”
Back in Nepal, Rana could have taken an easier path—joined the medical corps, perhaps. But he wanted a challenge. He joined the Nepalese Army Rangers, a hard-core commando unit not unlike its American counterpart.
“If I do something, I want to do it best,” he says.
He had a five-year commitment; his goal of studying abroad one day was pushed to the backburner. But at least the war was over. He spent much of his time in the military training other cadets and soldiers. That got him out of Nepal’s central valley and into more rural villages, which in turn afforded him time to ponder where he was and where he was going.
“I had a lot of time to think about what I really wanted in life,” he says. “I felt I was wasting my time there. And I really wanted to learn.”
Rana wanted to go back to school—and to the West. But that meant giving up a secure existence in his native land, one in which his future was more or less plotted for him.
His parents were skeptical—to say the least. “I remember when I resigned from the army, my dad apparently cried that night,” he says. His commanding officer refused to accept his resignation, apparently in disbelief that Rana would want to leave. More importantly, Rana still didn’t have the money to go abroad. He applied to a few schools—a business school and two liberal arts colleges—all in the U.S. anyway.
He’d heard about Rollins when he was 18, but back then the school didn’t offer international students the need-based scholarship he required. But now two Nepalese students were there, one of them a cousin. He applied, and was invited to Cornell weekend, where Rollins invites the best students to spend the weekend competing for a full scholarship.
“I could not have attended had the school not bought me a ticket,” he says. “In the army I was an officer, but I was paid $200 a month. That was my salary. Most of it I contributed to my family, pretty much all of it, because I was living in barracks and I did not need food or clothes.”
It was his first trip to the U.S. He fell in love with the campus and the staff. He felt welcome, at home even in a faraway land. When he got back, he threw away all of his half-completed applications.
“I was pretty confident I could get in after the weekend,” he says.
“A lot of the kids that were there, they were all talented and amazing, but they were all 18, and I felt that I really did well because of my personality and my background and my experience.”
Rana was right. He was awarded a Cornell scholarship.
Once he settled in at Rollins, Rana began exploring the College’s many study abroad programs. Costa Rica came first.
It was the summer of 2012, right before his junior year at Rollins. Rana was encouraged to attend a conference on social entrepreneurship, which was a new and budding thing for the school. There, he learned about a summer internship program in Costa Rica, where he would help eight women start a spa business. He applied, received a scholarship, and went.
That business is still running today.
“I came in with a computer science major in mind. I just wanted to help my family,” he says. “But when I came in and started being involved with [community engagement and social entrepreneurship], it completely changed my plans. I’m an economics major now. Having done alternative spring break trips and community engagement trips, I felt my calling was in creating systemic change.”
Then, in the fall of 2012, came Japan (where he met his girlfriend, Helene). He went because he was fascinated with Japanese culture.
On the way home, he gave his parents a surprise visit. His father barely recognized him.
After that he went to Rome for a semester, and then spent last summer in Lima, Peru, where he interned with New Development Solutions (NDS), another social entrepreneurship venture. NDS sells much-needed water filters, reading glasses, and solar lamps to underserved communities, and splits the profits with local women sellers.
Through it all, social entrepreneurship developed into something of a passion. “In the army,” he says, “I found that I really loved working under pressure, under time constraints, and with little resources. And that’s actually what you get a lot of in social entrepreneurship because you don’t have as many resources as big companies. There are limited resources, a lot of time pressure. Volunteering is good, but actually feeling like you’re changing people’s lives over the long term is a gratifying feeling, and the more you do it the more addictive it is.”
As I write this—a few months after our first meeting on Park Avenue—Rana is finishing his honor’s thesis on international property rights and applying for jobs.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Sanjay how he thinks his time here has changed him.
“I personally have grown more during the past three years at Rollins than in the 26 previous years,” he replies. “My character’s been totally shaped by Rollins and the people here because all I think about now is how to help other people. I want to make a career out of it.”