Courtesy photo of graduating ASU student Swatio Shrestha on top of a Himalayan peak.

ASU master's degree grad is on top of the world

By

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

When she began her Arizona State University career, online student Swati Shrestha was three years into a job in Mussoorie, India at a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills. “It was an incredible experience,” she said, “but it was also difficult to maintain a work-life balance. I wanted to do something that was just for me.”

Shrestha decided that earning a graduate degree was part of that self-care. She capitalized on a latent passion for literary studies and picked up where she left off with her undergraduate degree; Shrestha is graduating with a Master of Arts in English this December.

Attending online classes allowed her to crisscross the globe several times over during her studies, and to engage in other challenging pursuits – at many different altitudes. “Part of the reason I've taken two and a half years to complete my degree,” Shrestha said, “is because my first summer in the program, I spent 20 days climbing Bandarpunch, a snowpeak in the Indian Himalayas. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I was so grateful to be in a program where I could take the time to disconnect, spend time with friends as we learned to use icepicks and walk in snow boots, and slowly summit a mountain before returning to reality.”

But summiting 20,000-foot peaks wasn’t Shrestha’s only diversion. While simultaneously taking ASU classes, she continued to work as a college admissions counselor, attended conferences in Europe, and visited family in the U.S. states of South Dakota, Massachusetts, Texas and Oregon and in Kathmandu, Nepal. Shrestha capped off her world travels with a pandemic-era move to Bangkok, Thailand, where she now resides.

“I started my degree at 6500 feet," Shrestha joked, "and am ending it at sea-level." 

She continued, “I've learned so much from my master's program over the last two years, and I'm glad to have pursued a further degree.”

We caught up with Shrestha, as she rested between adventures, to ask a few more questions.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I loved reading as a kid, and read widely and voraciously. While researching colleges for my undergraduate degree, I remember absorbing the course descriptions for classes offered at my eventual alma mater, Reed College, and being thrilled that it was possible to study such a variety of topics within the field of English. Many years after I graduated from college, when I started to consider applying to graduate programs, I considered if I might want to pursue a degree in education, or counseling. However, as I looked through different programs, I realized that English was still a true passion of mine. I wanted to complete a graduate degree to be intellectually fulfilled, and I couldn't imagine that with any field other than English.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I took a class on posthumanism with Professor (Mark) Lussier that really stretched the way I considered how English as a field interacted with philosophy, and additionally, challenged how I thought about what it means to be human. I really enjoyed grappling with these big philosophical ideas in conjunction with media texts such as “Metropolis” and “Bladerunner.”

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU offered me the flexibility to complete my master's degree while I continued to work. I really like being a college counselor, but I was also ready to take on a challenge, and do something just for me. Plus, the English studies program at ASU offered a variety of classes in areas that I already knew I was interested in — magical realism, teaching young adult literature — and areas that I wanted to explore further — travel writing, teaching composition.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I have honestly been so grateful at how understanding and flexible my professors have been as I've figured out how to be a student in a distance learning mode. My professors were always understanding when I would email them months in advance to inquire about required texts. Living on the side of a mountain, I had to purchase most books online with enough time for them to wend their way across seas and up the hillside to my home. At one point, I realized that I would be on a school hike during the first week of classes, away from any kind of cell service in Govind Pashu National Park in northern India, climbing Kedarkantha Peak with a group of 22 students in grade ten. I contacted Professor (Claudia) Sadowski-Smith who was kind enough to think through the timeline with me, and open the class a few days early so that I could get my work for the first week completed before I left for the wilderness. I was so glad, because “Magical Realism as a Global Genre” was one of the classes I was most excited to take, and it was everything I had hoped it would be. Throughout the course, Professor Sadowski-Smith was firm in her high expectations, but fair and flexible at the same time – a teaching approach I hope to emulate.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: You can do it! Education online can feel like a solo slog, but make sure you're reaching out to your professors when you need help and keeping those in your life who care about you in the loop about your highs and lows. Most importantly, stay organized! I started keeping a note on my phone and computer for each class, which became the most helpful way for me to keep myself on track. I set up each note at the beginning of the session, with the course description, course objectives and rubric. Week by week, I include learning objectives, required reading, and assignments and discussions. Being able to check off the work I needed to complete week-by-week was not only satisfying, but also made sure I was on top of my schoolwork.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I was in a lot of places while I completed my degree! For most of it, I was living in Mussoorie, India, and my favorite spot for power studying there was next to our wood-burning stove, covered in blankets. But I've also got a special shout out for Harriet and Oak, a great little coffee shop in Rapid City, South Dakota, where I spent part of a summer quietly sounding out the phonetic alphabet for a linguistics class.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I've been working in college admission counseling for a decade now, and plan to continue working in this important field. However, I have loved being a student again! My degree gives me the confidence that I could pivot to another path in education or academia, if or when I choose to!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would put that money to work creating scholarships to help educate young people in developing countries and in regions of conflict, at all levels of education. Education is life changing. It changes the trajectory not only of a single person, but of their entire family or community. I have worked with students who are the first in their family to graduate from high school, let alone college. For their siblings and relatives, they are an example of what is possible. But I also know that coming into a rigorous high school or college education can be really challenging, and constant financial stress can affect academic performance. I would want to support students in developing countries from a young age through to a college education, to help young people become changemakers in their communities.