ALBANY (KPIX 5) – Pasang Wangmo is just one new freshman face in the crowd at Oxford College at Emory University in Georgia.

But she was a standout at commencement exercises at Albany High School, where she graduated this June.

In her speech, she talked about how remarkable it is that she is here at all. “For me,” she said, “the most memorable moment of my life was escaping from my country of Tibet by crossing the Himalayas. I was eight years old.”

It was really the foothills she had to hike across, avoiding the towering, snow covered Himalayan Mountains. Even so, it was treacherous. She knew many people who had tried to escape had been caught and killed by the Chinese government.

So everything had to be done secretly.

To actually cross the border, Pasang she had to hike surreptitiously for five days to get to Nepal and freedom. “It’s raining and night was really cold,” she said. “We slept under rocks and during the day we were close to where the Chinese camps are. We have to kind of hide so that they won’t catch us.”

Her family risked everything to find freedom so their children could get an education. “I have the opportunity, I’m in school,” she said. “The people in Tibet don’t have this choice… I’m here for a reason which is to become an educated individual (who) can contribute back to my community.”

She had to learn English when she got to the United States, but ended up with honors by her senior year. “She approaches having come to America like no other student, according to her teacher, Kirsten Drake. “In my seven years as a counselor, she is probably the most special student I’ve worked with,” said Drake. “It’s everything from her character to how involved she’s become in school and in her community and how much she cares for others and wants to help others.”

Pasang’s family lives below the federal poverty line. Her father struggles to support his family, working minimum wage jobs. “It’s hard to live, but what I have is my religion and through my religion I learned not to be materialistic,” said Pasang. “If you have your ends meet you know, if you have all the things that you need instead of all the things you want. Knowledge is more important than material (things).”

People in the Bay Area may know more than most Americans about the plight of Tibetans, given the visible protests that have been staged here, including flying a “Free Tibet” banner from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tibetans are denied basic human rights in their homeland – not allowed to speak their own language or practice their own religion. Their religious leader, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile. But the images that bring Pasang to tears are the photos of dozens of Tibetans who have self-immolated – set themselves on fire in protest of their treatment under the Chinese government. Pasang worries that none of this is bringing any change. “I feel that we don’t have a voice,” she said. “I’m scared that if it keeps going, some day there won’t be a Tibet.”

Pasang is determined to do what she can to make sure that doesn’t happen. “I’ve lived in a country where there is no freedom and I’m living in a country that has freedom. So I see the difference.” She wants to become an advocate for human rights and pursue medicine as a way to serve in undeveloped countries.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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