Making education a priority

“I’m passionate about helping first-generation and low-income students get the education I got and being a role model for them,” says Sonam Palmo ’19. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t get help from other people — I want to pass it on.”

For St. Olaf College student Sonam Palmo ’19, education has always been a priority.

At the age of eight, Palmo and her family left Tibet in search of better schooling in India. After a few months in a refugee camp in Nepal and three years in India, Palmo’s family moved to the U.S.

Today, Palmo is a pre-med chemistry major at St. Olaf.

“I know I want to be a doctor because I’m very passionate about medicine and helping other people,” says Palmo.

As a McNair Scholar, Palmo is conducting research this summer alongside St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dipannita Kalyani.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and sponsored by St. Olaf College, the TRIO McNair Program aims to increase the number of low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students who participate in undergraduate research, graduate with a B.A., and encourage them to pursue graduate studies and Ph.D.s.

“After completing my research, I will be shadowing the doctors of Delek Hospital, a Tibetan hospital in one of the largest Tibetan refugee settlement camps in northern India,” says Palmo.

Palmo attributes her success to the people and organizations who supported her along the way to where she is now, such as St. Olaf TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) Academic Advisor Tenzin Choerap ’10. Her parents and uncle have always been advocates for her education and her cousin, Choyang Yangkyi ’18, introduced her to the Hill.

“I’m very happy I came to St. Olaf. The community here is so supportive and caring. In Tibet, I was also raised in a very close community where people help each other out,” says Palmo. “One of the reasons why I feel like I’m doing well in this school is because of the support I have.”

Palmo is the treasurer for Team Tibet, a mentor for St. Olaf TRIO Educational Talent Search (ETS), and a member of the St. Olaf TRIO Student Support Services (SSS).

Team Tibet is a St. Olaf student organization that strives to spread awareness about issues pertaining to Tibet. It is a platform to discuss the political, social, and cultural scenarios of Tibet and share the knowledge with the St. Olaf community. Additionally, the members also help out at Lamton, a tutoring and mentoring program for Tibetan students in the Twin Cities.

“I was in Lamton when I was in high school and I found it really helpful,” says Palmo. “Students from St. Olaf, Carleton, and other colleges helped you with your homework and sometimes when it was near the application deadlines they helped you with applications and also revising essays.”

ETS is a college preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO Programs with St. Olaf sponsorship. The goal of ETS is to increase the likelihood that the 700 participating youth complete high school and gain admission to postsecondary programs, learn about financial aid, and re-enter secondary and postsecondary educational programs.

“When I came here I didn’t know English that well,” says Palmo. “Even though all of your classmates are in a fifth grade level and you’re in the same class, you’re at a kindergarten level and you have to catch up to them. I feel like it took me until ninth grade to really catch up. Some people give up on the way. I want to show them that it is possible.”

SSS is a federally funded TRIO college retention program. Part of this organization is the Summer Bridge Program, which gives highly motivated students a solid foundation for their college experience through a mix of academic and social activities.

“I participated in the Summer Bridge program the month before my first year at St. Olaf. Through the program, we were able to take a chemistry course and a writing course while also taking part in different activities and workshops designed to help students prepare for college. It was like a precollege before you actually start college,” Palmo says.

Palmo wanted to give back to this program and last summer she returned to the Summer Bridge Program as a science TA.

“Right now I have the ability to help people who are first generation and are younger than me,” says Palmo. “That’s my passion because I know when I go into medicine I can help them medically, so right now I’m more passionate about helping first-generation and low-income students get the education I got and being a role model for them. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t get help from other people — I want to pass it on.”