When he was a boy, Manoj Rai would stare at the sky.
“I would look at planes flying overhead, and I used to think, ‘Maybe I’ll get up there and fly,’” he said. “And then it happened.”
That was a big dream for a child living in a refugee camp in Nepal, but no more unlikely than the journey that brought Rai to Simpson, where he is a junior studying biochemistry.
“I’ve always aspired to something higher,” he said.
Rai took another flight recently when he traveled to Tuskegee University in Alabama, where he was one of seven students in the country to receive The George Washington Carver Spirit of Innovation and Service Award. He received $1,000 for the award.
He was accompanied by Walter Lain, assistant dean for Multicultural & International Affairs.
“It was a very fun experience,” Rai said. “I got to meet a lot of big shots. I was very happy getting an award that represents young aspiring scientists, especially being named for George Washington Carver,” whose college education started at Simpson.
At Simpson, Rai is president of the International Students Organization and a member of the Tri-Beta biology society. He also belongs to a rock-climbing club.
Few mountains could have appeared much steeper than the one Rai’s parents, Man and Goma Rai, faced in the 1990s, when they and their three daughters were chased out Bhutan and landed at a refugee camp in Nepal.
Rai was born in Nepal and lived in the camp until he was nine. “We had a place to live, but we were living in very bad conditions.”
Rai’s mother died in the camp. He, his father and three older sisters applied to move and study in the United States, and they were approved. The U.S. government and a charity organization helped settle them in an apartment in Kentucky.
It bothers him to hear of current attempts by the federal government to sharply restrict immigrants.
“We always looked up to America as the land of hope and opportunity,” he said. “If we close that door it would be very sad.”
Rai attended the Newcomer Academy in sixth grade. After seventh grade, the family moved to Des Moines, where his grandparents lived.
“It was really easy for us to settle in there,” he said.
He showed an aptitude in math, which led Rai to Simpson for a three-day math modeling competition when he was a student at Lincoln High School.
“I liked the environment because people here were really friendly,” he said.
Rai’s high school physics teacher is the husband of Heidi Berger, a math professor at Simpson. Rai connected with Heidi and learned about the Carver Bridge to STEM Success Program, a Simpson program funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, that provides additional scholarships for students to study in the STEM fields. He applied and was accepted.
“Simpson has fulfilled every expectation that I had,” Rai said. “I don’t think I would have gotten any research opportunities if I was somewhere else.”
Rai eventually hopes to become a pharmaceutical researcher.
“I think Simpson is one of the best choices I made,” he said. “I’ve been exposed to so many people, especially professors like Derek Lyons (associate professor of chemistry/physics), Ryan Rehmeier (professor of biology) and Heidi Berger, who really want to see students grow and become whatever they want to become.”