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Young Tibetans enroll in a new world

On a hot day last summer, two skinny and ebony-eyed 14-year-olds disembarked at Salt Lake International Airport after a long trip that started in New Delhi and meant changing planes three times - in Bangkok, Hong Kong and San Francisco.

They traveled light, with only carry-on luggage, and when they emerged from the concourse in Utah they found themselves strangers in a strange land."Very wide-eyed," said Hugh Bollinger, a Salt Lake businessman who helped sponsor Kun-sung Dorje and Tashi Bhuti on what will be a four-year stay a world away from the separate refugee settlements they grew up in.

Kunsung and Tashi are Tibetans who have never been to their homeland.

The adolescent pair epitomize the great Tibetan struggle of the late 20th century, as the country's theocratic government-in-exile labors to reclaim its native authority that China's communist regime usurped after World War II.

They also embody certain strong values cherished by Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

"I will go back to help my people," said Kunsung, who, like Tashi, plans on being a medical doctor by his early 20s and then returning to India or - if political events cooperate - to the country he's never seen.

They have a good start, enrolling this fall at Wasatch Academy, a 122-year-old Presbyterian-affiliated private school in Sanpete County, where board members have funded full, four-year scholarships worth almost $100,000 for each pupil.

It is an unlikely setting, situated in the very heart of Utah and in one of the most Mormon communities in a mostly Mormon state. Their compatriots in the classroom are a diverse lot, however, coming from broad walks of life in accordance with the college prep school's longstanding mission to cater to a mixed clientele.

While many pupils are from affluent families across the West, many are not.

"An important part of our mission is serving student from all socioeconomic sectors, and we have a history of supporting students from reservations and inner cities," said Joe Lofton, who goes by the quaintly stern title of academy "headmaster."

Because of the school's quietly cosmopolitan atmosphere, Kun-sung and Tashi fit in here perhaps better than they would in many American prep schools.

"Our English, it's not too good," lamented Tashi, but the young girl in fact speaks the local language pretty well, as does Kunsung.

Lofton said they will likely only take English as a second language for one semester, along with the usual freshman load of courses like algebra and biology.

So far they cling to their traditions with no indication of embracing everything American.

Both were shocked to learn that high school students in this country date. In Tibetan culture, such activities wait until after college.

Each child left families and parents behind and might not see them again until after the passage of the millennium.

"They're very courageous," Lofton said.

Bollinger said the young Tibetans are guided by strong expectations for what they will do with the opportunity they've been given.

"Tibetans have a tradition of identifying their best and brightest at a young age to become their leaders," he said. "And those chosen are known to fulfill such duties to their people."