Cosmopolitan Coder

Inside Shree Raj Shrestha ’17’s journey from Nepal to Rollins to one of the world’s biggest tech companies.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

For the first 19 years of his life, Shree Raj Shrestha ’17 rarely left the city of his birth. Save for the occasional visit to his grandmother’s countryside home, he never ventured outside Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. In fact, the first time Shrestha left Nepal he traveled to Winter Park to interview for the College’s prestigious Alfond Scholarship. He earned that scholarship, and since arriving at Rollins in the fall of 2013, Shrestha has engineered a college experience that would rival any in the country in its richness and reach.

He double-majored in math and computer science and studied everything from U.S. immigration law to existentialism in film. He did real-world research, developing a mobile app with history professor Julian Chambliss, exploring S0 galaxies with physics professor Chris Fuse, and designing a computer simulation based on Darwin’s evolutionary theory with business professor Richard Lewin and computer science professor Dan Myers. He studied math and philosophy in Germany and pottery and marketing in Japan. He was a campus representative for the Clinton Global Initiative and traveled to Qatar and Spain to participate in the WISE Learners’ Voice Program, which brings together students and young professionals from around the world to address pressing education issues.

Last summer, he interned at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and created an application that was used during Prime Day, the retailing behemoth’s annual global celebration of shopping. Ten days after he graduates this spring, Shrestha will return to Amazon as a software developer. It’s no stretch to say that that Rollins and the Alfond Scholarship have opened the world to Shrestha.

With commencement approaching, we caught up with Shrestha to talk Rollins, Amazon, and what comes next.

What exactly were you doing in your Amazon internship? “Software development. They don’t allow me to disclose the specifics of what I was working on, but I was doing data analysis towards the customer service technology side of it. I worked on a tool that was used by internal Amazon employees during Prime Day. I finished that sooner than expected, so I got a second project that has to do with chat bots and artificial intelligence. I’ll be working on that project when I go back.”

What’s it like to intern at Amazon? “One thing about Amazon that I found in my research was that most of the interns don’t like being there. They give interns the flexibility to do what they want to do. For the most part, the intern has the freedom to choose what they want to do and how they want to do it. So there’s less direction and more freedom and ambiguity. A lot of my friends that I worked with didn’t like that because they didn’t know what to do, you know? ‘I need some direction.’ But I really enjoyed it because Rollins already prepared me for those kinds of surprises. In one class, we would be reading about immigration law and then I would go to another class and learn about the chocolate industry in Africa. So Rollins prepared me to go into something without having any information about it and deal with ambiguity. That helped me perform better in my internship and get a job at Amazon.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

It sounds like that kind of critical thinking is harder than the actual coding aspect. “Writing code is easy. Figuring out what to write the code for is the hard part, and I think Rollins prepared me for that.”

What position were you offered? “It’s the entry-level software development position. I start 10 days after I graduate.”

What do you see yourself doing in the longer term? “When I was in Nepal, I didn’t have the means to pay for school, so I had to find my way around scholarships. After high school, I waited for two years working until Rollins provided me a scholarship. Finding my way through education has been a journey, and it definitely hasn’t been easy. All of the opportunities had to line up for me, which doesn’t happen to everyone in my shoes back home or in other countries. I was lucky enough to have internet in my home, but I was living in the capital city. In the rural areas and villages, where there isn’t any electricity or internet connectivity, those people don’t have access to those opportunities. I want to provide that space, those opportunities, to people who are in a similar position by providing them with access to the resources that I was getting. All the opportunities are out there and all the people who need those opportunities are on the other side. For some, there might not be a way to access those opportunities, so I want to provide that through technology.”

Providing access to education seems like it’s something that really resonates with you. That’s the focus of the WISE Learners’ Voice Program, right? How did you get involved with the project? “Toward the end of freshman year, I was introduced to social entrepreneurship through SESI, which is now the Social Innovation Hub. I was the campus representative for the Clinton Global Initiative. That experience led me to apply to the WISE Learners’ Program, which is a yearlong executive education program that brings together young professionals and students from around the world to brainstorm ideas about how we can rethink education. I was in Qatar for a few weeks, two or three times, for conferences. I went to a workshop in Madrid as well. They trained us on teamwork and entrepreneurship. I worked on a team from Yemen, South Sudan, Kenya, Cypress, and Qatar. What brought us together was the fact that education was a struggle for all of us. We worked on a project to build an alternative school at a refugee camp in Kenya and presented the project as part of the WISE Learners Summit in Doha.”

You also studied abroad in Germany and Japan. Why did you pick those programs? “I was really interested in German philosophy, and I studied German for two years at Rollins. I went to Jacobs University and found that their computer science and mathematics program is really good. Japan, on the other hand, I chose because it was a different setting all together. I was taking classes in pottery, marketing across cultures, a human rights course, which was offered by a U.N. professional, and Japanese.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Can you think of a relationship that you built at Rollins that has had an important impact on you? “[Business professor] Richard Lewin was one of my interviewers for the Alfond Scholarship, and rumor has it he was an influential person in determining that I got the scholarship. He believed in me—that this guy from Nepal has the skills and the capacity to come to Rollins and make a positive contribution. I haven’t had any classes with him, but he took me in sort of like a son. He and his wife would invite me to their home for Christmas, and he was always looking out for me and making sure I was doing the right things. We collaborated on a simulation program that uses Monopoly to teach his real estate students. Our research paper was published in the Academy of Economics and Finance Journal. If I hadn’t done that research project, I wouldn’t have gotten the internship or even gotten the interview. He has helped me build myself as an academic and encouraged me to look at things beyond academics.”

“Dr. Jay [Jayashree Shivamoggi, Director of the Office of External & Competitive Scholarship] really helped me explore the possibilities outside of Rollins. She was also a mother figure for me. Being away from my family she would always listen to what I had to say—whether it was about classes or professors or my personal life—she was always there.”

What about fellow students? Rollins has had a string of very successful students from Nepal. Did they help ease your transition? “The first time I came for the [Alfond] scholarship interview, [Raghabendra] KC ’13 picked me up from the airport, so he was the first student at Rollins that I had contact with. When I came here for good, Sanjay [Rana] ’14 picked me up from the airport. He knew exactly what I was going through, and he really helped me navigate the transition. He’s also been a source of inspiration to try something new—he was the one who told me about study abroad and encouraged me to travel.”

Looking back on your four years at Rollins, what has your experience meant to you? “Pretty much everything. It has helped me find a job. It has helped shape me as a person, as an academic, as a professional. Without the Alfond Scholarship, I wouldn’t have a degree. I wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t have the diverse perspective I now have. I wouldn’t have had all the friends, family, and support that I had at Rollins. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to Germany or Japan—none of that would have happened. I just would have been another guy in the Kathmandu Valley.”