Doctoral candidate aims to help international students attain higher education

Emma Riglin
May 25, 2021
Bikalpa Neupane

Bikalpa Neupane

IMAGE: Provided

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a child growing up in Nepal, Bikalpa Neupane dreamt of going to college in the United States. Although he and his family did not come from an affluent background, Neupane succeeded academically. As a teenager, Neupane started tutoring classmates to earn money to buy books for himself and to contribute to his family. His academic achievements, including being ranked third in the entire country in the National Examination for Intermediate Science Board Exam among the physical sciences group and founding a STEM club in high school, led him to be able to come to the United States for college with a full scholarship -- something he never thought was possible.

After studying information technology and mathematics at Brigham Young University in Utah, Neupane was hired as an engineer at Microsoft and later as a manager at Overstock, where he worked for nearly three years in his Optional Training Practicum period. Now, he is a doctoral candidate in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology researching fairness and bias of machine learning systems utilizing a human-in-the-loop approach.

Neupane hadn’t considered going to graduate school until he heard about the College of IST from his undergraduate mentor, Derek Hansen, a professor at BYU who suggested the college.

“I was already aware about Penn State as an elite, highly rigorous, highly funded, Research 1 graduate school,” said Neupane. “So, it did not take me much time to decide.”

Neupane said the mix of computer science and social science at the college was what drew him to the College of IST. In addition to academics, Neupane was looking for a sense of community and connectedness in choosing a graduate program.

“I wanted to call it a home, given that I would be spending five to six years of my life in that school,” he said.

When he received a personalized message from Andrea Tapia, professor of information sciences and technology at the College of IST, regarding an earthquake that occurred in his home country, Neupane knew he’d found the right place.

“It was that human connection from Professor Tapia and feeling of being considered which inspired me to enroll in the College of IST at Penn State — despite the multiple offers that I had,” said Neupane.

The first in the family

"I am very proud to be the first in my entire family, even extended family, to have come this far in higher education,” said Neupane. “As I will be completing a Ph.D., I will not only be fulfilling my dream and my parents’ dreams, but also the next generations to come. It feels unreal when I think about the journey itself, the struggles and obstacles coming from a middle-class family in Nepal to being where I am today.”

He added, “Many of my friends are oblivious to my upbringing and they might see me as ‘who I am today’ versus ‘my past’, but I know my journey has been challenging.”

In honor of his experience, Neupane wants to help other students that come from similar backgrounds to achieve higher education.

“I know that there are thousands of students just like me in Nepal, in Africa, in the United States, and elsewhere who need help,” he said. “My next goal in life is to pay it forward. I naturally gravitate towards helping people who are discriminated against due to systemic issues that lie in our society.”

To achieve that goal, Neupane is working on a project he created called Omviser, which matches students who need assistance finalizing college applications with mentors who can help them. As an international student, Neupane struggled with the process of applying to college in a different country and he experienced differences in admission decision-making. That’s why he created Omviser, which helps international students find the right school, apply for visas, and settle into a new culture. It uses AI and machine learning algorithms to match students with the right specialist for them, something Neupane wished he had when applying to college.

Neupane’s vision is broad.

“It is about a mission and creating an inclusive environment for all students from around the world, regardless of their socio-economic and geographical backgrounds, to participate in learning and growing process."

— Bikalpa Neupane, doctoral candidate in informatics, College of Information Sciences and Technology

“It’s not about getting students into colleges. That only helps me set the foundation to a long-term vision I want to achieve,” he said. “It is about a mission and creating an inclusive environment for all students from around the world, regardless of their socio-economic and geographical backgrounds, to participate in learning and growing process. It is also about changing how we view education and elitism in life.”

In addition to Omviser, Neupane co-leads projects in Nepal at the Human Computer Interaction Institute of Nepal (HCIIN) to inspire students from the global south to take part in scientific research which is not readily available to many of them.

"I have always had that desire to make impact at the grassroots level of our community, and through my personal experience I have come to realize that it is only possible by opening access to education,” said Neupane.

Differences are strengths

Neupane said one of the biggest challenges for first-generation students like him is getting noticed by admission officers, professors, recruiters and hiring managers without having many opportunities or educational experiences on their résumé.

“It is typical for us to be lumped into masses of those who have had opportunities for a lifetime and be judged alongside them in a same bucket. That is not as fair,” he said. "You don’t only look at the output. You need to think what the other person could have achieved if provided with same resources, money and mentoring."

Neupane is passionate about working with technology for social impact and plans to continue to work with technology to help underprivileged and marginalized communities, including through Omviser and HCIIN. Upon completing his degree, he plans to work with IBM Watson Data and AI group in natural language processing, as well as teach computing courses part-time at Penn State World Campus and be a lifelong advocate for the Nittany AI Alliance.

Neupane’s advice to fellow first-generation students is to acknowledge that it’s a different world and to be patient. Each student should draw on their own unique background and be proud of it as they pursue their career.

"Differences are strengths,” he said. “It is okay to be different, to try something different and to learn every single day."

Last Updated June 02, 2021