NORTH ANDOVER — Joseph LaTorre has heard the same question for over a year now, ever since he began his application process for a Fulbright Scholarship.
"Everyone always asks, 'Why Nepal?" LaTorre said via telephone Wednesday. "People ask me that all the time."
The decision gathered even more inquires after this past April, following two devastating earthquakes which left thousands dead and Nepal working its way back from literal ruins.
But for LaTorre, a recent graduate of Merrimack College, the decision to spend 10 months in the damaged and poor country was a no-brainer. He had been fascinated by Nepal and its culture since high school, and he worked tirelessly to receive admission into the prestigious program.
The hard work paid off, as LaTorre, 20, was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship in April after a nearly year-long application process. He will depart for Nepal in March 2016. Just the second Merrimack student to receive a Fulbright, LaTorre admits he almost surprised when he heard he had received the scholarship.
"I was perplexed, really," LaTorre said. "I was pretty calm about it all. I was happy to see (all the work) pay off."
LaTorre, who majored in psychology and minored religious studies at Merrimack, began his application in April 2014, working with his philosophy professor, Dr. George Heffernan. While consulting with Heffernan about his destination, LaTorre kept going back to Nepal, located in Tibetan Plauteau, which he visited a few years earlier with friends.
"I've always been very passionate about the Himalayan culture," LaTorre said. "Unlike other Asian countries, (Nepal) has never been a British colony. There's a great preservation of the Nepalese culture there."
LaTorre spent countless hours with Heffernan working on his essays, where he had to articulate his reasons for wanting to participate in the program. In October, LaTorre had the opportunity to travel to Turkey to meet Ryan Matthews, a 2012 graduate from Merrimack and the only other student in the school's history to receive a Fulbright scholarship.
"I got to talk with Ryan about his experiences, and I also met some other (Fulbright recipients) and learned a lot about the Fulbright culture," LaTorre said. "Going down there really confirmed by interest in pursuing the scholarship."
After returning to school, LaTorre continued to work on his essays. He received word in January he made the final round of applicants. In April, he received the news: he had been accepted as a Fulbright scholar.
But the good news was met with terrible news, as April was the month when the two earthquakes struck Nepal, leaving over 10,000 dead and thousands more injured. LaTorre admits now he was "very concerned" when he heard about the earthquake.
"What was going to happen?" LaTorre said. "Obviously, I was worried about the program, but first of all, I was devastated by the news and for all the people there."
The entire program had to be renovated, as many of the locations where Fulbright scholars would normally work and live were destroyed by the quakes, according to LaTorre. Even as of Wednesday, LaTorre said his plans were not finalized by the program's organizers.
Despite the uncertainty, LaTorre remains excited about his opportunity. Last month, he attended a Fulbright orientation in Washington, D.C., where he met with program organizers, diplomatic officers from Nepal and other scholars from around the country.
"They're really enforcing that this is not just a 9-5 job," LaTorre said. "They're really encouraging us to go out in the evenings, go around to different parts of the country and make ourselves known in the community."
While he waits for his departure, LaTorre will continue working at his part-time job at Whole Foods Market in Andover. He also said he'll spend plenty of time learning Nepali, the language of Nepal, as well as doing as much research as possible to prepare for his time abroad.
In addition to Heffernan, LaTorre said fellow Merrimack professors Dr. Joseph Kelley, who serves as the director of the Center for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations, and Dr. Rebecca Norris of the Religious and Theological Department, also influenced him during his time at the school and his decision to apply for the Fulbright.
Although he'll be doing much of his work in a classroom, LaTorre understands his true purpose as a Fulbright scholar will be to help students in Nepal understand his cultural, just like he will work to understand theirs.
"We're going to be placed in English teaching positions, but teaching English is not the primary goal," LaTorre said. "It's about giving the Nepalese people an experience with interacting with Americans and enhancing a mutual understanding between two nations."
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