Above: Rajen Upreti poses for a photo.
Rajen Upreti is a 2021 graduate of Millersville University who holds a degree in speech communication and was recently awarded a full scholarship to attend the prestigious University of Southern California’s Film School Summer Program. But his story starts many miles away from California.
A former refugee of Nepal, Upreti spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp with his parents who were forced to flee from their home country of Bhutan after civil unrest reached a boiling point. But it was there, in the refugee camp, where Upreti’s interest in film and acting began.
As a child, he would rustle up coins so he could watch movies outside of the refugee camp. “The fun part in the camp was chasing a small truck that passed through every week announcing the movies they were showing.” He says those films captured his imagination. But even in his wildest dreams, he didn’t ever consider that he might someday live there. “We didn’t even dream about coming to America,” he says. “It was never a thought in my mind.”
Life in the camp, he says, was full of kind neighbors looking out for neighbors. “If you would run out of salt, you would just go to your neighbors and ask to borrow some,” explains Upreti. “People would hang out outside of their houses and talk. We just had very strong ties with our neighbors.”
Then, when he was 10 and a half years old, his life changed dramatically: his family immigrated to the United States. Assisted by UNICEF and Church World Services during the initial process and family members that were already residing stateside, they eventually settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Upreti says it didn’t take long for the culture shock to set in. “I was shocked to see how empty the streets were, apart from cars,” he says. “I was so used to seeing neighbors interacting, and I didn’t see that happening often when I moved here.”
Over his years in Lancaster, Upreti still dreamed about pursuing his dream of creating films and acting. So, when it came time to go to college, he enrolled in Millersville University and quickly got involved in campus theatre productions and took every class on acting, theatre history and script analysis he could find.
Upreti also became the Census state communication representative for refugees in Pennsylvania during college. In this role, Upreti helped to create key marketing materials and videos, sometimes in Nepali, to educate his community members about the importance of participating in the census. It was through his work with the Census that he connected with 2004 Millersville alumnus Matt Johnson who serves locally as a refugee community organizer at Church World Service.
Ever the networker, Johnson noted that Upreti had a passion for acting and filmmaking and sent him information about the USC scholarship. “I hadn’t heard anything about [the scholarship], but Matt and I met through the Census work,” he explains. “We talked about my interest in acting. He remembered our conversation and forwarded me an email about this scholarship. They were interested in working with refugees.” Upreti applied and was accepted, but due the pandemic, the program was delayed for a year.
Now, the time has finally come and Upreti is currently studying and residing in Los Angeles with hopes of enrolling in an acting school at the close of the summer. “I’m currently taking two classes here at USC; one is called 419: Insiders and the other is Filmmaking,” he says. “Insiders class is about what the industry is like, and we have guest speakers from the industry talk about their journey. Filmmaking is basically about making short films, editing, screenwriting, shooting and more by yourself.” He says the scholarship is providing him with invaluable opportunities. “This scholarship means a door to my dream, which I have entered now,” he says. “I know there so many steps I still need climb up but this is just the beginning.”
Upreti says he’s still grateful for the role Millersville played in his life. “MU shaped me in many ways, from classes to campus environments and the professors,” he explains. “My major also plays a massive role in building myself and selling myself in the business aspect. Today, I am in a place where I have to sell myself as a valuable product. I want to thank you my school MU, family, friends and rest of the supporters who helped in my journey. I have lived in a community where I have received love, friendship, supports and I am forever grateful for that.”