Leena Dahal ’17 had never been to the United States before applying to college. A native of Nepal, she attended the American International School of Dhaka in Bangladesh and wanted to pursue higher education abroad. A Google search for “good communications schools United States of America” led her straight to Elon, and she certainly made the most of her experience.

An International Fellow and Lumen Scholar, the strategic communications and international studies double major excelled as a journalist with Elon News Network. She won several awards for her work, including a national Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award for three of her columns.

Dahal also engaged in multiple undergraduate research opportunities. As a Lumen Scholar, she focused her research on the role of social media in shaping youth agency and the impacts of digital inclusion and exclusion during periods of national crisis, with a particular emphasis on her home country of Nepal, which was ravaged by an earthquake in April 2015 that killed at least 9,000 people. Dahal received the Lumen Prize three days before the earthquake struck. Her research location was severely affected, so she repurposed her existing project and asked important questions for the post-disaster context.

She returned to Nepal shortly after the earthquake in April 2015 and again in 2016, collecting more than 50 narratives from youth in offline and online communities. She found much debate among scholars who argued disaster management is dominated by top-down relief efforts, so she wanted to highlight the creative capacity of youth rather than their vulnerability. She sought to understand not only the role of social media during a crisis, but also what it meant to be offline during such a trying time in a country where only 40 percent of the population has access to the internet.

Dahal also conducted research with a team from Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center in 2015 at the United Nations-facilitated Global Internet Governance Forum in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, where more than 2,000 stakeholders from 116 nations represented government, technology, business, academia and civil society. The team conducted nearly 100 ethnographic video interviews to assess intersecting themes and conflicting opinions about how to “connect the next billion,” as 4 billion people across the globe still have no access to the internet.

I recognized through my work the power of social media in shaping and harnessing collective agency during difficult times, not only in an organizing capacity but also in terms of coping, and also how privileged it is to have access to the internet and how privilege exists in virtual communities themselves.

Dahal is a recipient of the Brad Hamm International Scholarship Award from the School of Communications, the Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies Certificate and the PERCS Outstanding Ethnography Award. She was also selected from a pool of about 6,000 applicants for the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which was awarded to 35 scholars from the United States and 55 from around the world. Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program seeks applicants who are academically outstanding and are likely to be transformative leaders across a wide variety of fields.

Dahal is pursuing a master’s degree in modern south Asian studies at the University of Cambridge in England, where she plans to continue her study of social media with a focus on whether it helped or hindered discussion of nationalism and identity in response to the 2015 unofficial border blockade between Nepal and India. Following the completion of her master’s degree program, she hopes to return to Nepal.