Former Thomas Nelson STEM Student Headed to Cal Berkeley | Thomas Nelson Community College

Former Thomas Nelson STEM Student Headed to Cal Berkeley

April 2, 2021
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Monica Gurung loves research, and will be doing a lot of it as a graduate student at Cal Berkeley.

An $80 application fee and lack of confidence almost cost Thomas Nelson alumna Monica Gurung the opportunity of a lifetime. However, she filed the appropriate paperwork with a few hours to spare, and earned a full academic scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where she will begin work on her graduate career this summer.

“I never thought I would get in,” she said, noting it was tempting to use the $80 for something else. “I submitted my application at the last minute because I was really thinking if I should submit it. I’m glad I did.”

Confidence shouldn’t have been a factor, said Dr. Ji Hyon Mun, a Thomas Nelson professor and the head of the College’s engineering program.

“She was really surprised when she got accepted by Berkeley, but I wasn’t surprised,” said Munn, who had Gurung in four classes. “I knew she was more than ready for Berkeley.”

Gurung, who is from Nepal, moved to Hampton with her family about five years ago. Her initial plan was to spend a semester at Thomas Nelson before moving on to a four-year school. Again, finances played a role in her decision.

“I did a semester and then I thought I’m just going to get my associate’s (degree) and then transfer because I thought, financially, it would be a better decision,” she said, adding she’s glad she made that call, too.

After graduating from Thomas Nelson in spring 2019 with a degree in engineering, she went to Virginia Tech, where she will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering. That’s the same area she will study at Berkeley. She said one of the first things she will be researching is how to remove arsenic from drinking water,

When she was in high school, Gurung’s goal was to be an engineer. She also thought about earning a Ph.D. and becoming a professor. She entered Thomas Nelson expecting to be a social science major, and considered a career as an environmental lawyer. But since doing a lot of environmental research, especially concerning global warming and drinkable water, she would like to get into government and become a researcher.

“I can see myself working for the government, maybe the EPA,” she said.

Mun also can envision that.

“Her aspiration never really changed, but she’s become more and more interested in research,” Mun said. “She can combine engineering with policy making so she has more of an impact on overall environment. She’s very passionate about that.”

As for Gurung’s lack of confidence, Mun has tried to be a cheerleader, and thinks it might be helping.

Along the way to have to remind her, ‘Hey, Monica. You are this good. You can do this,’” Mun said.

She relayed a story that Gurung was nervous about a summer research program because a lot of other students were from big-name four-year institutions. Mun reminder her saw was just as good as they were, maybe even better.

“I think that experience gave her a boost in her confidence that she can be as competitive and she has all the potential that she needs to aspire or achieve her dream,” Mun said.

Yet she still needed a pep talk when applying for graduate school. After Mun saw Gurung’s original list of schools, she quickly had Gurung revise it.

“I told Monica, ‘You’re going to apply to other schools that are more competitive. You could even apply to Berkeley. You could even apply to MIT,’” Mun said. “She was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. There’s no way.’”

Gurung is glad Mun pushed her, and she’s grateful to all the Thomas Nelson professors who believed in her.

“I think one of the reasons why I was able to get into some of the colleges and gain confidence is because I’ve had really good mentors,” she said, mentioning Mun, Dr. Elena Kuchina (physics) and Bruce Penrose (geology). “They really helped me a lot.”

Even though it’s been two years since graduating from Thomas Nelson, she still stays in touch with those professors, texting them each time she’s accepted by another college.

 “Getting into so many colleges has helped me gain confidence,” she said. “I’m still humble, but it’s good to know so many schools want you.”

Gurung believes her experience at Thomas Nelson was as good as she could have gotten at any four-year school.

“I had good connections with all of my professors,” she said. “I think I spent hundreds of hours in Dr. Mun’s office just talking about what I want to do in life, what should I do to get where I want to get in life. I just had really good connections with all of the professors.”

Mun said all those talks wouldn’t have matter if Gurung hadn’t followed through.

“She’s the only person that I truly met who actually had a dream and has done every single thing to make that dream a closer reality,” Mun said.

There was a road map from the beginning, which Gurung followed.

“I mentioned to her that if you want to get to this point, these are the little steps that you need to take, incremental steps,” Mun said. “She started out with summer research, which led to more research experiences, which led to her internship outside the College, which led to Virginia Tech’s research. And then now to Berkeley and her other school acceptance letters. She’s done every single step, and she was very conscientious about taking these steps.”

With all that going on, Gurung still found time to help classmates. Mun recalls seeing Gurung mentoring students at Thomas Nelson, including helping them apply for research opportunities. She assisted the College’s LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) program by bringing in speakers and organizing workshops for job interviews and resume writing.

“She’s never arrogant, and she always wants to pay it forward,” Mun said. “She needs to recognize how capable she is, and how much potential she has, not just as an engineering student but as a future engineer and researcher.”

Mun has no doubt Gurung will make a difference in this world.

“She’s absolutely an amazing person. I’m so excited for her and for our engineering community.”

Paying that application fee has turned into an investment in her future, and quite a good one at that.