Legacy of Love

Almost 70 years after making history as the first Nepalese woman to attend college in the U.S., Bhinda Malla Shah ’56, Nepal’s first woman ambassador, shares her story with granddaughter Aarya Shah ’23

By Aarya Shah ’23

Bhinda Malla Shah '56 in a wheelchair next to her granddaughter Aarya Shah '23.
Photo by Hemanta Shrestha

Barnard College, known for launching extraordinary women, has a special connection to Nepal: the first Nepalese woman ever to pursue and graduate from college in the United States — Bhinda Malla Shah ’56 — chose Barnard. Shah’s education here was just the beginning of her trailblazing journey. She was posted to the United States as a member of the Nepal Foreign Ministry and later established the first Nepali embassy in Bangladesh after that nation’s independence. She became Nepal’s first woman ambassador with her appointment as ambassador to India.  

This deep bond now continues across generations with Bhinda’s granddaughter, Aarya Shah ’23, also born and raised in Nepal, who began her first semester of college at Barnard in fall 2019. We asked Aarya to interview her grandmother about her Barnard experience and the beginnings of this multigenerational legacy.  

What follows is their conversation — a celebration of Bhinda’s time at Barnard and of the possibilities that await Aarya.

I will always cherish the memory of that early morning on December 1, 2018, when my parents came into my room, shook me awake, and told me that the Barnard early-decision results had been announced. I quickly opened my laptop and clicked on the email. As we read it, we all started to laugh, cry, and shout. I was in! 

I closed my eyes and saw my grandmother Bhinda’s face. I smiled, thinking of all the times over the years she had told me that I must try to go to Barnard. I remember her saying, “I had two sons. So there was no chance of them going to my college. But the moment you were born, I knew there was hope for my legacy to continue.” I could hardly wait to tell her that I had been able to make her dream come true.

My earliest memory of my grandmother is when I went to show her a new doll set my parents had got for me. She pulled me up on her lap, smiled at me, and while admiring my doll lovingly, looked at my parents and said, sternly, “Don’t just give my granddaughter dolls and cooking sets. Give her doctor and science sets as well. She must understand that a woman’s life is not limited to the home and kitchen.” 

At that time, I didn’t fully understand the importance of this idea until I began to understand the consequences of being a woman in a patriarchal society. But today I do, and I realize just what a big responsibility I now carry, having gotten the opportunity to pursue my higher education at Barnard. Like my grandmother before me, I am apprehensive as well as excited as I begin the next chapter of my life. I remember my grandmother telling me, “When you return from Barnard, I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps. I expect you to start from where my footsteps end and take the torch forward in your unique way, like only you can.” I will take her words with me through my journey. 

So let’s start at the beginning: What led you to Barnard? 

My journey to Barnard actually started when I entered an essay competition called “The World of Tomorrow.” The prize was a monthlong trip to the United States. I won, and when I got on the flight I had no idea that my one-month tour would lead me to the most formative years of my life. As I was finishing my United States tour, I met a lady in Voice of America [the federal government’s broadcasting network] who was from Barnard and part of the committee that had arranged the tour. She asked if I was interested to do my college in the United States. Of course, I was! But I didn’t have the financial means. I don’t recall very clearly, but she arranged for me to apply to Barnard and for a substantial scholarship that enabled me to start what turned out to be some of the very best years of my life.

Throughout my life, I have believed that it was my duty to be the voice for the tens of thousands of Nepali women who didn’t have the opportunity to get the education I received. And, in addition to being Nepal’s first woman ambassador, I hope this will be as big a part of the legacy I leave behind.

What was it like to be the first woman from Nepal to graduate from a U.S. college?

Bhinda Malla Shah graduating
Pres. McIntosh awards Bhinda Malla Shah her diploma, 1956

In the 1950s, for a girl from Nepal to go to school was a rarity. So, it was absolutely unheard-of for a girl to go study abroad, forget going halfway across the world to America.

Truthfully, at the time I didn’t realize that I was the first woman from Nepal to get an opportunity to pursue higher education in the United States. Initially it felt like a dream. Winning the essay competition and coming to America itself was a surreal experience.

But then getting the opportunity to go to such a prestigious institution as Barnard was unbelievable. I knew I would have to face many challenges. But more so, I knew I would make the most of every day and each course that I took. From my first day all I wanted to do was learn — from my classes, from my friends, and from America. Today, when I look back, I realize just how fortunate I was to get that learning experience, because that was the foundation on which I built my life.

How did this change your life when you returned to Nepal? 

After finishing my bachelor’s at Barnard and master’s [in international politics] in Johns Hopkins, I returned to Nepal only to realize that the years I had spent in the United States had made me very capable to face the challenges in America but left me a stranger in my own country. My English was perfect, but my spoken Nepali was good at best, and I could barely write Nepali at all. At that time, everything in Nepal was in Nepali. However, having faced the total unknown when I started college at Barnard, I was confident that I could and I would make the most of my life back in Nepal. The U.S. government was helping establish the first library in Nepal, the American Library. And as I was one of the few people who had ever actually used a library, I was given the job to help set it up. When all the work was done, it was inaugurated by the then king of Nepal, His Majesty Mahendra B.B. Shah, and by the first democratically elected prime minister, B.P. Koirala. After the ribbon cutting, I gave them a guided tour of the library — in English, of course.

After the tour, the prime minister asked me if I was Nepali, and when I said I was and gave him my background, he insisted that I join the government bureaucracy. With that bit of encouragement, I took the Public Services Commission examination and was selected for the Foreign Ministry. 

Soon I realized that the education and exposure that I had received made me unique in many ways, and along with my career I would always speak up for gender equality at work and in society. Throughout my life, I have believed that it was my duty to be the voice for the tens of thousands of Nepali women who didn’t have the opportunity to get the education I received. And, in addition to being Nepal’s first woman ambassador, I hope this will be as big a part of the legacy I leave behind.

Young woman reading
Aarya Shah on campus.

What was it like on your first day at Barnard?

I still remember quite clearly, most probably because I was extremely scared. I actually had no idea what to expect. I remember feeling alone, far from home, my family, and every sense of normality that I had known till then. All I had was my familiar silk sari cocooning me and my belief that I could do this. I remember sitting on the bed in my room in Brooks Hall feeling like I was all alone in a small boat floating in the middle of a vast ocean. My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door, and in walked my very first friend at Barnard, Dorothy Grant [Hennings ’56]. Little did I realize the bond I would have with this girl from the room next door would grow into a friendship that would last a lifetime. I remember that evening we walked together to dinner in the cafeteria, and this soon became our routine for nearly all our meals at Barnard: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Soon after, we got the door between our rooms unlocked, and it remained so over the next four years! That first night I went to bed with a smile, as this new place didn’t seem so lonely and scary anymore, as now I had a new friend, Dorothy — or Grant, as I began calling her.

I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps. I expect you to start from where my footsteps end and take the torch forward in your unique way, like only you can.

Who were your closest friends? 

The friends I made in Barnard have been my friends for life. I don’t have any friends that I am in touch with from school, or from Johns Hopkins, where I did my master’s. But my closest friends from Barnard have remained with me till today. That’s what makes Barnard so special.

Shortly after meeting Dorothy Grant, I found Marcia McNaughton, or probably it was the other way around, and the dining friendship group expanded to the three of us. In the evenings, after we had studied for several hours, we would gather to snack and talk in Grant’s room. That was our typical evening routine: eat, study, gather to chat about the day and everything happening everywhere. Somewhere along the line, Helga Hagedorn-Frese [Bendix ’57] and Alice Pape [Kundel ’57] joined our dinner gang. And gradually that became the norm for us all: Marcia, Grant, Alice, Helga, and I — our unique group of five. Unlike many of the other girls, our group did not smoke or drink alcohol, or party even on the weekends. Our gang’s idea of a great Saturday evening was to walk down Broadway, go to the movies, and then come back to snack in one of our rooms and talk, talk, talk. We joined the Lutheran Club, not for any religious reason; it was a nice place to meet different types of people, and the Friday night dinners there were delicious. 

Obviously, I didn’t have any family in New York or the United States. But right from the first Thanksgiving and Christmas, I would go to Grant’s house in New Jersey. Her parents were so kind and welcoming.  I always felt like I was with my family during the holidays. Also, it was Helga who came to Nepal when I was getting married to your grandfather. And the photos you have seen of our wedding were, in fact, taken by her. No matter how many miles have been between us, or how many years have passed us by, the members of our gang of five were, are, and will always be my best friends.

What challenges did you face? 

Initially, I found the academics at Barnard rigorous, because the manner in which I had been taught in school was very different. However, since I had a strong group of friends and accessible professors whom I could always approach, I was able to cope. The most difficult challenge I remember facing was during my sophomore year. Although I was on a substantial scholarship, I still needed to make some payments, and in those days, money was very slow in coming from Nepal. I still remember how scared I was when the dean called me in and said I may have to leave the dorm and work as a nanny for a family they knew nearby in the area if I was unable to make the needed payment. All my friends and I cried and cried when they heard the news. But Grant quickly got on the phone and asked her mother and father if they could loan me the money I needed to stay in the dorm until my money came from Nepal. Thankfully, they were able and willing, and a major crisis was averted. Soon my brother came to the United States with the money, and I was able to pay back Grant’s family. It was only a few hundred dollars, but that was a lot of money back then.

Elderly woman and young woman sitting together
At Bhinda Malla Shah’s home in Kathmandu, Nepal 

What helped you succeed as a student? 

First and foremost, I think it was my confidence and belief in myself that really helped me succeed at Barnard. I found myself in one of the best women’s colleges and initially felt as if I had been thrown into a gushing river and told to learn to swim. But swim I did, because I was determined to make the most of this incredible opportunity that I had been given. 

For me, my biggest support system as a student was my group of friends, who helped me understand the American education system, studied with me, and worked through assignments with each other. Along with this, what truly helped me was the large amount of personalized attention that the professors were able to give students due to the small class sizes. 

Although I found the academics rigorous, I loved and thrived in math, history, and English. Through all my courses and assignments, what I remember is the strong sense of community. There was competition. But it was healthy competition, where we wanted to do better for ourselves, not to be better than anyone else. It was this environment which really helped me learn and make the most out of my years in Barnard.

What were your impressions of New York City? 

I had never been to, let alone lived in, a big city before arriving in New York. So, yes, I was excited and a little frightened to be so far from home. As I got to know New York, I slowly started to fall in love with the lights, the crowd, and the life of the city. But even though we were in the hustle and bustle of New York, our small group of friends were like a cocoon just floating through it all. 

I never missed an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that I was in New York. In my first summer, I got a job at a social services center at Hartley House downtown, off Seventh Avenue. I worked with children in need who were being sent out of the city to summer camps. I did this in addition to working during the year at the Voice of America radio station, broadcasting in Nepali for the listeners in Nepal. This job enabled me to meet a substantial part of my expenses to stay in New York. Now when I think back, I find it hard to believe the amazing number of miracles and events that happened which enabled me to go to Barnard. I feel truly fortunate and blessed. One thing is certain, I learned as much about life from New York as I did about how to live the very best life I could from Barnard.

What is your fondest memory of your time at Barnard? 

The first time I saw snow! It had snowed all night, and I ran out the next morning and without any hesitation, I rolled around on the snow-covered lawn. For the first 10 seconds, it was pure happiness, and then the cold started to seep in, and I ran back to my dorm. Our gang also had a tradition of celebrating each other’s birthdays with great fanfare. We would dream up different ways to celebrate and surprise the birthday girl with a party beyond her expectations. As I went to school in a convent, I don’t remember celebrating my birthday before going to Barnard. But ever since then, birthday celebrations have been a big part of my life. I remember a time when, on my birthday, we all boarded the subway to Queens to go to a special ice cream parlor where anyone celebrating a birthday got free ice cream. Small things like this filled us with happiness. The memories I cherish the most of my years in Barnard were moments spent with my friends. I hope that you are fortunate to meet girls who may start off as strangers from different parts of the world but will become friends not only for four years but for your entire journey through life — just like me and our gang! 

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