“Tragedy should be a source of strength.” – The Dalai Lama

In April 2015, the strongest earthquake to hit Nepal in nearly a century claimed the lives of 8,500 people and left millions homeless. As with most disasters, vulnerable populations were the most acutely affected, notably children. Thunderbird alumna Pragya Uprety ‘12 immediately joined the relief efforts. That involvement morphed into role in Nepal’s long-term recovery and spearheading reconstruction of a rural school.

[[{"fid":"5776","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Project Haibung: Thunderbird Alumna Leads School Rebuilding Effort After Nepal Earthquake","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Project Haibung: Thunderbird Alumna Leads School Rebuilding Effort After Nepal Earthquake"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Project Haibung: Thunderbird Alumna Leads School Rebuilding Effort After Nepal Earthquake","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Project Haibung: Thunderbird Alumna Leads School Rebuilding Effort After Nepal Earthquake"}},"attributes":{"alt":"Project Haibung: Thunderbird Alumna Leads School Rebuilding Effort After Nepal Earthquake","title":"Project Haibung: Thunderbird Alumna Leads School Rebuilding Effort After Nepal Earthquake","class":"panopoly-image-original media-element file-default","data-delta":"1"},"link_text":null}]]

Undaunted by the scale of the tragedy, Pragya acted immediately with the passion of a native daughter, deploying the skills and business eye she honed during her time at Henkel, Parmalat, and as a Thunderbird student, and activating the powerful connections of her international Thunderbird network.

In the early days after the earthquake, Pragya and her team of friends joined international agencies in providing short-term rescue and relief supplies such as food, medical supplies, tents, and blankets. With Nepal’s challenging topography and heavily damaged infrastructure, the government had to use a fleet of helicopters to transport supplies and evacuate the wounded.

“Our team committed early on to helping in whatever small way we could,” said Pragya. “We collected and dispatched around $7,000 worth of relief materials such as blankets, tents, water purifiers, protein bars, sleeping bags, and medicine in cooperation with the Nepalese Army Women’s Association. In this process, we quickly realized what the ultimate focus of our efforts should be: To rebuild.”

“We quickly realized what the ultimate focus of our efforts should be: To rebuild.” – Click to tweet

Rebuilding Haibung

Pragya’s first task was to select a project where she and her friends could make a meaningful impact on a scale proportionate to the limited resources at their disposal. With an eye toward restoring Nepal’s future, they dove into Project Haibung, named for the devastated village of 576 families, to rebuild the Haibung Mahadevstan School that would serve students from five existing schools that had been reduced to rubble.

Pragya and her team chose this project based on two trends that preceded the disaster: high rates of school dropout and human trafficking.

“Before the earthquake, average school attendance for grades 1-5 was 85.3 percent. But the dropout rate in marginalized communities is high and, without access to schools for a prolonged period, dropout rates increase exponentially. We were determined to preserve the high level of engagement and prevent dropouts,” she said.

In addition, Haibung’s district has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the country, and children represent one-third of the trafficking cases reported.

“In resolving to rebuild the school, we decided to give these children a fighting chance at a better life.” – Click to tweet

“We knew it might take years for aid organizations to rebuild schools in a village like Haibung. The makeshift school they provided early on had children sitting on floors, a leaky roof, and little protection from the harsh winters,” Pragya explained. “Even worse, as time passed without educational opportunities, the risk increased that children would drop out of school permanently and leave for cities to work in restaurants, as domestic help, manual labor at brick kilns, in garment factories, and even as sex workers.”

Against this backdrop of negative potential outcomes, Pragya and her team resolved to build a school that would provide a safe and secure learning environment for the children.

“We are committed to building a school that drives creativity and serves as a template for further rebuilding projects in Nepal,” she said. “Then, on successful completion of the initial rebuilding project, we will continue to support the education of underprivileged Nepali children more broadly.”

The power of the network

Pragya and her team developed a detailed project budget of $73,000. “My Thunderbird network was critically important both in the early relief efforts and as we undertook to rebuild the school. One of my first impulses was to reach out to fellow Thunderbird alumni and they were the source of many of the earliest donations and of ongoing material and moral support,” Pragya said.

“My Thunderbird network was critically important both in the early relief efforts and as we undertook to rebuild the school.” – Click to tweet

From there, Pragya and her team branched out to foundations and NGOs for additional resources and expertise. Founded by a Thunderbird alumnus, the T&J Meyer Family Foundation in London, where Pragya completed an internship while at Thunderbird, provided early funding of $15,000 and still serves in an advisory capacity.

To ensure a professional approach to the rebuilding, Project Haibung partnered with the Austrian chapter of Architects Without Borders, which conducted site assessments and developed an innovative school design that accounts for the topography and climate of the village, the culture and lifestyle of the children, seismic hazard, and the strengths and challenges of the education system.

“It was important that we emphasize a local flavor and leadership to Project Haibung, so we partnered with the local community throughout the planning. We also didn’t want to reinvent the wheel by founding a new, fledgling nonprofit organization when we could partner with existing organizations already embedded in the community,” said Pragya. So Project Haibung partnered with Nepal’s Sarawagi Foundation to mobilize local funding. To solicit US-based funding, Project Haibung partnered with the American nonprofit organization Nepal Ko Yuwa under its Nepal Rising Campaign.

It is people like Pragya Uprety – those who not only dream of changing the world, but actually go out and do it – who make up the student body at Thunderbird, often referred to as a “mini United Nations.” Meet some other Thunderbird students and if you haven’t yet, considering joining us.

Learn More

  • For more information on Project Haibung, join their Facebook group
  • For more alumni stories like this, and much more, subscribe to the Knowledge Network (form is on the left on desktop, at the top on mobile)
  • Join Thunderbird on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter