EastBay Today

Feature
Posted November 5, 2018

A Grandfather's Legacy

Cal State East Bay alumna, granddaughter of Tibetan refugees, secures job at ‘Big 4’ accounting firm

The American dream. It means many things to many people — the ability to buy a home, go to college, enter a career of choice — but its most basic principle is that those aspirations can be achieved by anyone in this country who is willing to work for them. Yet a spate of recent studies finds that one of the fundamental ideals of American democracy, social mobility, has been on the decline for decades. Founded on the premise that “the higher education degree has become the new high school diploma, an essential requisite for obtaining reasonable employment and achieving economic mobility in the 21st century,” CollegeNET.com has been compiling the Social Mobility Index in an effort to recognize institutions promoting social mobility since 2014. According to its rankings, California leads the charge in access to education for underserved students, and the 23-campus California State University system accounts for 13 of the top 30 institutions helping to reinvigorate the potential of the state’s young people and breathe new life into the American dream.Cal State East Bay, specifically, is ranked No. 21, or in the top 2 percent, of 1,363 colleges and universities nationwide. We want you to meet the students whose lives, families and communities are being changed through the opportunity of a college degree, and also get a snapshot of the very real statistics our students are up against when it comes to breaking through the barriers to their futures.

Tsephel Dolma’s grandfather Lobsang Tenpa had a difficult life. He and his family left their native Tibet in 1959 when China invaded its mountainous neighbor, finding refuge among the Tibetan diaspora in Mysore in southern India, where they grew maize. He and his wife raised their children, and when those children moved away to work, the grandparents raised their grandchildren as well.

He always told Tsephel Dolma (who uses both names, per the Tibetan tradition, although many Americans call her Dolma) that he didn’t want her to have his life of backbreaking farm labor. He wanted her to have a desk job.

Tsephel Dolma has fulfilled that dream.

Earlier this year, she graduated from Cal State East Bay and landed a job in the San Jose office of the prestigious accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“I really wish he could see that,” Tsephel Dolma said. “He really wanted that for me. He really wanted me to get an education. Everything was very uncertain for girls. We had a small government office in our settlement that was very intimidating to the farmers. He thought only educated people can have a desk and not have to bend over under the hot sun.”

Tsephel Dolma, 25, appreciates all the sacrifices made for her by her grandfather, her grandmother Dolkar, and by many other relatives.

“I’ve had a lot of help from my family, my friends, the school — everything helped make me the person I am today,” she said. “I wouldn’t take credit for myself.”

Her mother, Fnu Chozom, moved to the west coast of India to sell sweaters to support the family while Tsephel Dolma and her brothers, Dorjee Tsewang Phuntsok and Tenzin Choeney, went to boarding school in Tamil Nadu. Her parents separated when she was less than three months old, and she has met her father only twice in her life.

Her mother and her mother’s sister Tenzin Yangkyi, “the rock of our family,” were her role models, she says. Her aunt moved to the U.S. years ago and her mother followed in 2003. Fnu Chozom became a certified nursing assistant and brought Tsephel Dolma and her brothers to America in 2012. They’ve all lived together in an apartment in Oakland; when Tsephel Dolma started work in San Jose, it marked the first time in her life that she would have a room to herself.

In Oakland, 27 percent of homes are headed by single women, the highest rate of all East Bay communities, and 53 percent of unwed mothers live below the poverty level, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. The Progressive Policy Institute estimates less than 2 percent of teen mothers obtain college degrees.

Upon arrival, Tsephel Dolma enrolled at Laney College, but in her first semester, her grandfather took ill and she returned to India to care for him as he died of cancer. “I appreciate that time in my life so much that I was able to give back to him,” she said.

She returned to Oakland and gained confidence, particularly in her English, as she earned good grades. She took a restaurant job to pay tuition as she established residency and took classes at Laney and Berkeley City College. At Laney, she earned her associate degree in 2016 and started at Cal State East Bay right away.

“I couldn’t wait to take accounting courses,” Tsephel Dolma said. She recalled hearing about accountants when she was in seventh grade and asked what they did. Another student told her, “They sign off on companies, whether they’re good or bad.”

“That sounded so powerful to me,” Tsephel Dolma said.

She dove into student life at Cal State East Bay, particularly the campus branch of the national accounting fraternity Beta Alpha Psi. Nancy Mangold, chair of the university’s Department of Accounting and Finance, said Tsephel Dolma took the executive vice president role and helped to organize many events.  

Since becoming chair, Mangold has worked to ensure that major accounting firms recruit at the Cal State East Bay campus, and Tsephel Dolma took advantage of those events. She describes herself as quiet and shy, and says in India, students were told it was disrespectful to raise their hand and ask questions. But at a meeting with big accounting firms, “I raised my hand. It took all my courage.”

She praised the firms for their commitment to diversity and inclusion and asked how far auditors travel in their jobs. The panelists noticed her and followed up with her. They encouraged her to apply, and she wound up with an internship last summer at PricewaterhouseCoopers, on the 17th floor of a San Jose office tower.

Travis Nelson, manager of Cal State East Bay’s College of Business and Economics Office of Career and Professional Development, said Tsephel Dolma has “grit.”

“The main thing about Dolma that really makes students like her stand apart from others is their willingness to participate and find the answers to questions they have,” he said. He says in the book “There Is Life After College,” author Jeffrey Selingo describes students as “sprinters, wanderers and stragglers.”

“Dolma is one of those sprinters,” Nelson says. “She took advantage of all the tools available. She reached out to people, took part in workshops, and moved toward her goal.”

“I was so happy to hear when she got the internship,” Nelson says. “When it transitioned to full-time, it was amazing. When she got the offer and thought back to the hardships she had as a child and all the hard work, it’s amazing to experience that, someone who is very deserving and getting that dream.”

Tsephel Dolma does not seem to harbor any bitterness about the hardships she and her family faced. “We felt like the luckiest refugees in the world because everyone could have three meals a day,” she says.

Immigrants and refugees face a life full of hurdles, according to a 2005 study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They struggle with language, often only have access to low-quality education, and suffer from poverty as their jobs are not secure. They live in substandard housing, are isolated in their communities from needed services, are emotionally isolated due to the stress in their lives, and face prejudice and discrimination.

And now she feels even luckier.

“I was on the 17th floor when my mentor, a partner at the firm, sat me down in his office toward the end of my internship and told me I got the full-time offer,” she said. “I was overwhelmed with emotions and later sat at a desk on the same floor wishing I could share this news with my grandpa.”

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