Photo by Jenna Kingsley College senior Christal Wang (left) and Georgia Institute of Technology sophomore Kush Patel (right) worked on   their app, PhotoSinc, Saturday night at the Emory Hackathon.

Photo by Jenna Kingsley
College senior Christal Wang (left) and Georgia Institute of Technology sophomore Kush Patel (right) worked on
their app, PhotoSinc, Saturday night at the Emory Hackathon.

It’s 11 p.m. in the Math and Science building’s biggest lecture hall. But instead of the silent, deserted place it is most Saturday nights, the room is alive with a quiet energy. Students working in hushed tones are scattered all about the giant space.

In the middle of the room, three young men type furiously on their keyboards, surrounded by a mountain of empty water bottles and Coke cans. In the front of the room, someone laughs as a fellow group member writes an equation on an already-crowded whiteboard. In the corner, a student bangs his hands on his laptop and consults his team with frustration.

“You see?” he says. “It works when I move my hand over the sensor. But on the monitor, it’s reverse! Did you see that?”

The focus, laughter and frustration all are directed at one event: Emory Hackathon 2014, a 32 hour competition to build an app, or hack, with a team and showcase the creation to win a multitude of prizes. This year’s hackathon was hosted throughout the Math and Science building from April 12 at 10 a.m. until April 13 at 5 p.m. The event was co-hosted by Microsoft, who offered over $5000 in prizes for skilled coders and beginners and boasted more than 200 in total attendance.

But what is a hackathon? And what is it that’s being hacked?

At events like Emory Hackathon, there’s no actual “hacking” in the mainstream sense of the word. The goal is never to hack into another account or get through the firewall of a government database. Rather, a hackathon is an event where computer programmers come together to work intensively on software products and programs. It’s a combination of the words “hack” and “marathon,” hence the need for computer prowess and coding stamina.

College hackathons started gaining popularity in the spring of 2009, when a hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania, PennApps, was born. Since then, hackathons have grown in quantity and attendance on campuses around the nation.

Many hackathons offer big prizes for the most innovative creations. PennApps has since grown to host over 2500 hackers and offer upwards of $30,000 in rewards. Emory Hackathon, only in its second year, cannot yet boast those types of numbers. But it is growing, and quickly.

Last year, Emory Hackathon was a small event with around 50 participants. This year, over 200 students participated. While some participants were Emory students, many came from neighboring schools like Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) or Georgia State University. Hackers came from five different states, and their education backgrounds ranged from high school to medical school.

“Hackathons are the biggest thing to happen to CS (computer science) in a long time,” College senior and lead organizer for the event Tom Mou said.

Mou, along with many others from the Emory Robotics and Computer Engineering Club, dedicated many months to planning this year’s event. The team spent much of their time obtaining sponsors, planning logistics and even hosted coding workshops for beginners in preparation for the competition.

Mou stressed the importance of gaining sponsors for events like this on campus.

“80 percent of our budget doesn’t come from Emory,” he said. “That’s why we turn to sponsors.”

Microsoft co-sponsored the event, in addition to other companies like Google, United Way, Uber, Zipcar, Wolfram, MailChimp, Mandril, Twilio and many others. The hackathon was also sponsored in part by Emory’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Department of Chemistry, Laney Graduate School, College Council and Robotics and Engineering Club.

Sponsors helped provide food, prizes and speakers at the event. The prizes ranged from a Microsoft Surface 2 tablet for each team member, $500 in cash and one year WolframAlpha Pro/Mathematica passes for the Grand Prize winner to Startup Chowdown tickets at Atlanta Tech Village for the best startup-friendly hack. The best novice team received a $250 team cash prize and 6 month Code School passes.

With prizes for novice teams and support available from experienced hackers, the event was open to all skill levels.

“It’s really all about learning,” Mou said. “We wanted to focus on that aspect, not the prizes. We’re doing this for the Atlanta community.”

The Atlanta community came out bright and early. Check-in started at 8:30 a.m., followed by a kickoff ceremony, tech talks and then lunch, which served as a meet and greet for the participants. Then, things got quiet and the hacking commenced.

Food kept many hackers going throughout the event. Participants ploughed through five meals, 12 pounds of ground coffee, 150 bottles of Starbucks iced coffee and, of course, pieces upon pieces of pizza.

“It’s not a hackathon without midnight pizza,” Mou laughed.

Just before the midnight pizza, work began getting more intense all over the Math and Science building. Each team, consisting of a maximum of four members, only had 32 hours to complete their hacks. While some Emory students decided to go back to their rooms for the night, many of the hackers worked into the early hours of the morning, taking turns napping in various designated sections in the building.

While teams were scattered across different rooms, the hub seemed to be room 208, the giant lecture hall. The room was quiet, but there seemed to be a charge to the air, like a sort of silent frenzy.

“It’s usually even crazier than this,” College senior Christal Wang said. “I think some people went back to their dorms.”

Wang was on a team with her brother, Christopher Wang, and her brother’s friend, Kush Patel, both sophomores at Georgia Tech. Christal and Patel, both novices, teamed up with Christopher, an experienced programmer, for the weekend.

“We’re just here to learn,” Christal said, shaking her head with a smile. “This is Christopher’s thing. This is what he does on the weekends.”

The trio’s app, named PhotoSinc, was a picture service that took photos from a phone, uploaded and tagged them on the cloud, and then sent them individually to the tagged person. Essentially, the app allows people to share photos but bypasses social media.

“It grew out of being more private,” Patel said. “Chris and I aren’t fans of public social media.”

Another team, consisting of Trevor Goodyear, Gene Chorba, William Wood and Gabriel Siewe, all CS majors from Georgia State University, created an app called Shelter, which provides a portal for homeless shelters to maintain databases of the homeless with pictures and information related to each individual.

Though they are both experienced coders, it was Goodyear and Siewe’s first hackathon.

“We tried to ask to be in the novice category,” Goodyear joked.

“They said no,” Chorba said with a grin.

It ended up only being fair; Shelter won three prizes at the event, including Second Place overall, the United Way Hack for the Homeless Prize for the best hack that addressed an issue regarding homelessness and Best Use of Twilio application programming interface (API).

The grand prize went to College senior Neil Sethi and his team members Angie Palm, Brendan Isham and Shivani Negi, all students at Georgia Tech. Their hack, called, was a sound sampling web application that allows users to act as a DJ on the go.

Third place went to Parachute, an app that delivers ice cream directly to the consumer by quadricopter. The creators, all Georgia Tech students, are now talking to King of Pops about the opportunity to deliver popsicles to customers by dropping them in tiny parachutes.

The high school team from Milton, Georgia took home the top new hacker prize.

All hacks were due at 3 p.m., when each team was given three minutes to demo their app to the judges. Then, judges deliberated and awarded prizes at the closing ceremony. Closing ceremony speakers included Protip Biswas, vice president of homelessness at United Way of Atlanta, Devin Rader, developer evangelist at Twilio and Brian Easter, CEO of Nebo Agency.

“Overall, the event was overwhelmingly successful,” Mou said. “We had people who knew nothing about coding make fully functional apps after learning basic platforms. The group of medical school students from Emory created a text-alert system that automatically alerts the authority in the event of a serious collision between bikes, motorcycles or cars. And yes, they knew nothing about coding before this.”

But learning wasn’t the only thing happening at the event; participants also made sure to make time to have some fun.

“Microsoft came out with a 3D printer for the first time and made stuff for people for free,” Mou said. “They also brought out 2 Xbox Ones.”

However, despite all of Hackathon’s success, Mou believes there is still room for improvement. He hopes that each year’s success will build upon the next. The only place to go, it seems, is up.

“We are already starting to work on next spring’s edition of the event, which will be much bigger,” he said. “More prizes, more participants, bigger venue.  And bringing in people from across the South to make it the biggest hackathon for the South by the South.”

— By Jenna Kingsley

Courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema | Flickr Director and producer David Gordon Green, known for comedies such as “Pineapple Express,” spoke to Emory students last week.

Courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema | Flickr
Director and producer David Gordon Green, known for comedies such as “Pineapple Express,” spoke to Emory students last week.

David Gordon Green is a writer, director and producer best known for studio comedies “Pineapple Express” and “The Sitter,” as well as independent feature films including “All the Real Girls” and “Prince Avalanche.” Before premiering his 10th feature film “Joe” at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival, Green paid a visit to Emory University to deliver a talk to the student body. The Wheel had the opportunity to sit down with Green and learn about his experiences as a filmmaker.

Where are you from, what sparked your interest in film and what was your college education like?

I was born in Little Rock, Ark., but I grew up in Dallas, and I always loved going to the movies. I would go with my dad a lot. I always had a bit more than an entertainment interest in movies; I really just took them seriously. I loved absorbing anything I could get my hands on behind the scenes, or if I could find a script that I could read or movie magazines I’d subscribe to. I started really exploring what it took to make movies from a young age. I was always really drawn to the concept of movie-making.

My mother told me there was a great arts program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was just a campus of musicians, dancers and artists of various types and a brand new film school. So I went to school there. It wasn’t full of people with a ton of cash or networking. It was filled with people like me that loved watching movies and thought about making movies. I worked in the film archive, and that’s where I met most of the guys I make movies with. We went to school for a few years and started playing with equipment, talking about stories and things we’d like to make and our influences. We got out of school, saved up our money and started making movies. We just finished our 10th movie together, and we’ve done a ton of TV shows and commercials. It’s an interesting collective. Danny McBride and Jodi Hill lived down the hall from me in college, and now we own a company together!

You met a lot of professionals who work with you on your movies in college, like Tim Orr, your cinematographer and David Wingo, your composer. What do you feel the importance is of forming these creative partnerships?

You find people that are excellent at what they do, and some of your best friends maybe aren’t the best for the job. It’s about surrounding yourself with a group of people you’re inspired by. I want to work with people where, when we have a great success, we’re there to celebrate together, and when we have a great failure, we’re there to lift each other back up and get to work and not really be bound by the perception of traditional Hollywood observers.

You mentioned that you went into college without a connection in Hollywood. How did you overcome that networking obstacle?

We never asked for a connection in Hollywood. We just started saving our money and spending our money. We didn’t ask people for the keys to the Porsche; we just started driving the Jalopy. Eventually, people starting catching on and started paying us to do it. We turned a pastime into a career, which is the coolest thing you can do. It’s also kind of confusing sometimes because I don’t know how to take a vacation. If I have a few days off, I’m thinking about the next films I’m going to do, which isn’t much of a vacation.

In 2013, you directed both “Prince Avalanche” and “Joe.” What was it like directing two feature films in that short span of time?

It’s fun. There’s a lot of directors whose instincts are in perfection, but my processes are drawn more to the efforts of momentum, uncertainty and exploration. Just trying things. Not that we don’t have a massive amount of preparation for our projects, but there’s a lived-in, breezy quality to what we do because it’s loose and less stressful. We don’t necessarily have a concept of what we’re doing before we do it. We have a blueprint architecture for something that we want to accomplish, vaguely. We just try this, try that, improve through it and always have the script to fall back on if we need it, but for the most part, it’s just trying to find a fresh way to look at a story.

What are the roles of a director and a producer?

It’s different on a lot of projects. A lot of filmmakers like to have the “A Film By” credit because they’re the only guy that made it: they did write it, and direct it, and produce it and score the music for it. And then there’s other people that differentiate a little bit in that someone who would do the screenwriting would be different to the guy communicating with the actors and structuring the tech and artistic elements of the production, as well as the art direction and the costume design and the shots. I’ve had producers on my movies that I’ve never even met or heard of, but I always assume they’ve contributed something of importance to the film. Other times there are producers on set every day, asking you questions, helping you develop a script. A director is there to communicate between the various departments. In a healthy circumstance, everybody comes to him, and he’s giving the actors motivation and insight on how to interpret the screenplay. He’s talking to the producer about what they need to achieve within the set construction and talking to the cinematographer about ideas and concepts about how to shoot the film.

What difficulties arise in having a film that you wrote and produced?

The big question is this: where does the money come from? Sometimes money can come from a major corporation and a big movie studio. There are a lot of people that are savvy independent film investors. I’ve invested in a few movies when friends of mine are directing, whether it’s giving them money to get a project started or financing the completion. You become a participant in the potential profit of a movie. There’s a lot of risk involved because the idea of being a film producer or investing in film can be a romantic notion, but then the reality of having to hit certain deadlines with certain dollar amounts can be daunting, especially when the possibility of recoupment is questionable. There’s a lot of people that change their mind after realizing the depth of the investment. There’s always the danger, particularly in independent financing of money falling through.

One of your most recent films, “Prince Avalanche,” was shot in Bastrop, Texas, a pretty remote location. Did you personally scout out the location for the film?

“Prince Avalanche” is an example of a movie where the location was there before the script. It was a location that I had stumbled upon. Chris Hrasky, the drummer for Explosions in the Sky, the band that did the music for the movie, had told me to check out Bastrop State Park and that I should make a movie there. I watched this Icelandic film called “Either Way,” and I decided to remake the movie in that location. I do love the production value of a kick-ass location. It’s kind of cool to find a place that tells its own story and has a significance in terms of a backdrop, with cool characters in the foreground.

Where and when did you shoot “George Washington?”

“George Washington” was my first feature film. I shot it not while I was enrolled in school but where I went to school in North Carolina. I had made a short film in college called “Pleasant Grove,” which was the seed to the idea in “George Washington.” I made another movie called “Physical Pinball,” where I met a young actress Candice Evanofski, who starred in the movie. I decided I wanted to make a movie with her, so I wrote a role for her in “George Washington.” A year after I graduated, I went back to my friends and asked them to hold onto their lease. I just rented a big old house, got a bunch of used mattresses and threw them on the floor and had like 17 people living in a four-bedroom house and made a movie.

Have you had to work any odd jobs to finance any of your films

In Asheville, N.C., I had no money and I was picking up odd jobs when I could. I was working at a doorknob factory, dunking chrome doorknobs with bronze coatings into acid. I was working that job in anticipation of my next movie happening. I’ve had a lot of snaky jobs.

What kind of education did you have in film school?

It was technical and project-based. There were boundaries and limitations. We would have a concept for our project and get our hands on cameras and editing equipment. I tried to learn everything. When I realized what I excelled in or what I was confident in or what I was interested in, then I’d try to find the support of people who were better at what I lacked, like better editors and better cinematographers.

The Emory Film Program is, for the most part, history and theory-based. What kind of advantages do you feel there are to a strong academic background in film?

It depends on the person. Some people are more academic and intellectual about their exposure to film. Some people are more hands-on and in the field. Some people like to be in nice lighting and air conditioning, and some people like to be in the sweat and swamp of it all. For me, it’s both. Sometimes I like to sit back and read and reflect, and other times I like to take a big bite out of the dirt and learn a machine I’m not familiar with. In terms of a film school, the school I went to really worked for me. The curriculum was made by the student body, the kids I went to school with. We all have these long-shot ideals of what we want to be doing when we graduate. It’s nice to have people with a practical goal and a realistic means of achieving that.

What is the advice that you have for the future filmmakers of Emory University?

Surround yourself with people you trust. People that know how to challenge you and not just kiss your ass, and people that know how to support you, but not just ignorantly so. Assemble an A-Team. Find a lot of specialists that you have a good time working with. Figure out where your strengths are, and spend money and time responsibly. There are a lot people that I know who are really talented and great artists, but they’re crappy business people. Or they’re people that are great businessmen that are really smart with economics, but they don’t have anything creative about them. You need to find the balance between finance and creativity.

What is it like to direct two very different films, such as a studio film like “The Sitter,” or a personal independent film, like “Prince Avalanche”?

I like to challenge myself in different ways. “The Sitter” was a movie with a healthy budget, and we lived in New York City with the best of the technicians and a really talented cast. It’s nice when you have all of these resources at your fingertips and the support of a studio like 20th Century Fox. The film’s genetics are engineered to make it a hit commercial Hollywood film. From the beginning stages, you’re making a film that you know people will respond to and a film that will make its money back. It’s a really satisfying thing as a director when you see long lines for these films at the movie.

Right after I had done that, I wanted to switch gears. Jump into something more raw, personal, intimate and immediate. If it’s a big studio movie, there are lot of people asking you why you are doing what you are doing, with opinions on what makes a successful film. I wanted an opportunity to explore a performance piece with a couple of actors. I stripped away the excess baggage. There were no toys. There were no lights — we couldn’t even shoot at night. We didn’t even have trucks for the equipment. We rolled up in vans. The actors didn’t even have trailers; we set them up in log cabins in the park down the street. But the obstacles became opportunities for us. It was also a movie that I found very funny, and it didn’t need to appeal to millions of dollars’ worth of people. It needed to entertain thousands of dollars’ worth of people, which makes a big difference in your engineering of the film. It’s fun to let your imagination go wild. It’s fun to get in your own head and in your own passion about something.

Paul Rudd is a great comedic actor. Emile Hirsch is a great dramatic actor. What was it like putting them together?

In a lot of ways, flipping the stereotypes, it was fun seeing a comedic side of Emile come out, or a more dramatic side of Paul. I was trying to engineer a movie that had two of my friends that I could trust who would be down for a nitty-gritty movie like this. I had to narrow down the actors who would be up for a movie like this. The idea of a Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch movie made me laugh, because they would just never be in a movie together. We had no idea what the chemistry would be like, but we just did it. It was pretty clear from the first read through that we knew it was going to be a very funny dynamic, and it’s very similar off-screen as it was on-screen, which was very entertaining for me.

Television has acquired both narrative complexity and a cinematic aesthetic over the past few years. Do you foresee yourself directing and producing more in television?

I’ve done four seasons of “Eastbound & Down,” and I plan on doing a TV pilot and a show for HBO next year. We’ve got a lot of exciting things in development. Television has taken on a cinematic quality of excellence that it used to not have. But now it’s at a point of genuine substance, and the acclaim it’s getting and the viewership it’s getting is really deserved. It’s taken a bite out of the movie business, but it’s fun, lucrative and you can explore more complicated themes that don’t necessarily have to be so high-concept or star-driven; they don’t have to be dependent on the opening weekend box office. They can live and breathe, and people can think about them. They can infiltrate culture for a little bit before somebody tags them as a success or failure. 

Is there any genre that you want to tap into?

I want to do horror. I want to do a classy, elegant horror movie. Like a Polanski movie, or something that has an artistic ambition to it. Or “The Shining,” which scares the crap out of people generation after generation because they’re made with substance.

- Interview conducted by Casey Horowitz

In recent years Emory has become a force to be reckoned with in terms of college rankings, as it has maintained its status as one of U.S. News and World Report’s top 20 universities. In August, Forbes Magazine decided to drop Emory from its list of top universities as a consequence of last summer’s revelation that Emory had been intentionally misreporting admissions test scores. Although Emory has succeeded in maintaining its standing, it faces a new challenge: as of Aug. 22, President Barack Obama has changed the face of college rankings.

As high school seniors struggle to decide where they’ll be spending their college career, publicized rankings have become an increasingly important factor in their decision. The college ranking system has traditionally been dependent upon factors such as academic resources, selectivity and SAT/ACT scores. However, according to a recent New York Times article, Obama is planning to change these factors. According to the Office of the Press Secretary, the new college ranking system will place an increased focus on financial aid, scholarships and job placement after college, while also striving to lower the cost of a college education.

Although there are those at Emory who fear that Obama’s new ranking system will overlook some of the more unique aspects of the university, Charlie Harman, vice president of government and community affairs at Emory, firmly believes that with the university focused on excellence and education, there shouldn’t be a need to worry.

“It is premature to assess any of the concepts [Obama] introduced because the Administration, much less Congress, has not developed specifics around the broad proposals he has put forward including his scorecard,” Harman said.

Harman also said he believed that Emory would always be recognized as a leader amongst universities because, as he put it, “we put the horse before the cart.”

The president’s new system plans to focus on workforce success and rank colleges based on the number of graduates that obtain and keep jobs. With the new rankings recently released by the U.S. News and World Report, more emphasis has already been placed on graduation rates. Emory University President James W. Wagner said that this proposal is a demonstration of our country working towards improving its system of higher education. Although the new system still presents itself with several flaws, students would benefit greatly from this information.

In an email to the Wheel, Paul Fowler, executive director of Emory’s career center, said that Emory guarantees a “return on investment” for its education. A recent survey done in 2013 by the career center on five-year post-grad resolutions for Emory college graduates showed that over 73 percent of graduates are seeking out graduate or professional school, employment and internships after graduation.

The new ranking system also intends to create incentives for universities to work on accessibility and affordability. Dean Bentley, Emory’s director of financial aid, said that this proposal would set ranking standards and link the standards back to a university’s financial aid.

Yet there are those, especially on Emory Secrets, who complain that Emory’s financial aid fails to measure up to its reputation.

However, Bentley said the average undergraduate need-based scholarship or grant is approximately $33,833 and in 2012, Kiplinger rated Emory as one of the best valued-private colleges.

However, this new plan also seems to have a dark side as other private universities like the College of William and Mary have voiced a possibility of a ‘shame list.’

They fear that perverse incentives will force universities to reject ‘at-risk’ students and ‘dumb’ down various standards in order to obtain higher rankings.

Wagner said that it would be unwise to say that this won’t affect Emory.

“A lot of academic leadership are provided by schools like Emory, it would be wrong for us to say that this really isn’t going to rock our boat so we aren’t going to take a position, that’s why I say with concern that no I don’t think this will pervert what Emory does,” Wagner said.

But as a higher institution it is Emory’s duty to not sit back and watch as other Universities succumb to such incentives.

With this said, Wagner states that Emory will voice its opinion should the time come when we start to see such effects hurting this ranking system.

“[Emory has] a responsibility, as part of the American university system to not sit on the sidelines, just because we might not be directly affected [by these perverse incentives]” Wagner said.

—By Ashley Bianco 

If the price of an Emory education was not approximately $200,000, but rather the cost was running away from your family, embarking on a treacherous hike through the Himalayas and braving numerous encounters with Chinese and Nepalese police, it’s hard to imagine many students would pay the price. This is not the case for Tibetan Buddhist monk Sonam Choephel.

Sonam is one of the six Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars beginning his studies at Emory University as part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.

After completing work in various scientific courses, Sonam and his fellow monks will return to India to further the Tibetan Buddhist community’s understanding of modern science.

Slight of stature, Sonam speaks slowly and deliberately. He has a shaved head, as is customary for Tibetan Buddhist monks, and wears the traditional deep-red colored robes.

The prevalent stereotype of severe, strict monks and nuns quickly fades away as soon as Sonam begins to speak. He makes jokes and laughs easily and frequently.

Sonam was born in a small village in eastern Tibet called Wri. One of seven children, he spent his days leisurely.

“My childhood was not very interesting,” he said. “I just spent the whole time in that small village just doing nothing at all … just playing with my friends. No schooling or education.”

As an adult, Sonam understands that the Chinese government’s control of Tibet led to the oppression of his family.

But as a young boy, he was less aware of Tibet’s political situation. He recalls that his parents did have a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but that it was hidden away.

Less concerned with politics, Soman longed for an education; he was 14 and illiterate.

“At that time we had many people leaving for India,” Sonam said. “We had heard that the Dalai Lama was in India and that there was education there.”

Sonam’s uncle Yonten, to whom Sonam felt very close, was a monk in a local monastery.

Although the monastery provided some education — in the form of Buddhist prayers and teachings — neither Sonam’s parents nor Yonten advocated that he join.

“My uncle sometimes used to tell me that it is good to join a monastery in India because they have these education systems,” Sonam explained.

The only way to receive a decent education, Sonam decided, was to travel to India and join a monastery.

One fateful day in 1992 Soman was visiting his uncle Yonten at the local monastery when Yonten had to leave unexpectedly.

“I don’t remember where he was,” Sonam said. “[But] I was alone in his monastic house.”

At that moment, Sonam and his friend decided they should leave for India immediately.

“My friend who was running away [with] me could write a little bit in Tibetan,” he said. “So when we left, I left a short note for my parents that I was leaving … and then I ran away.”

Sonam and his friend embarked on what would become a treacherous journey to India.

First stop: Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

The trip to Lhasa was made primarily by bus and sometimes walking, Sonam said.

Once they arrived, the two spent a couple months roaming around. When Sonam’s parents discovered he was in Lhasa, they sent a letter asking him to come home.

“My father wrote in the … letter, if you don’t come back to home mother is very worried,” he said. “And she has already fallen sick worrying about you.”

Although Sonam felt conflicted and saddened by this news, he was determined to find a way to India.

Fortunately, the tide turned in his favor when his father sent a second letter.

Not only was Sonam’s mother feeling better, but she and his father had also found a guide to assist Sonam on his journey to India.

“So my father sent some money with [the guide] and also a letter saying I should go to India with him,” Sonam said. “I wanted to see His Holiness, I wanted to join a monastery [to] get some education.”

Sonam and a group of 20 Tibetans began their journey by each paying the guide 500 Chinese dollars and boarding a bus to Shigatse.

After six long hours, the group arrived in the city and spent the night. The next morning, they hopped into the back of a truck, which took them to a large forest.

“It was still day time, so we stayed in the forest waiting for it to get dark,” Sonam said. “When it was dark we started our long journey walking.”

The trek from the forest, through the Himalayas, to Katmandu, Nepal, took about a month on foot, Sonam said.

And as they approached the border between China and Nepal, almost free, Sonam heard the sound of gunshots and dogs barking.

The Chinese military personnel — security guards — had spotted them and were pursuing them with guns and dogs.

Frightened, the group ran as fast as they could, hoping to escape.

Luckily, the security guards were not as determined as the group.

“We just ran and ran and finally got away,” Sonam said. “It was very scary.”

This was not the last of the group’s run-ins with military officials.

Once they arrived in Katmandu, the group came across a Tibetan monastery on the outskirts of the city.

“We reached there in the morning and the monks were very helpful,” Sonam said. “We were tired and hungry. They cooked us food and gave us some fresh new clothes.”

A few nights later, Sonam and his traveling companions were dining in a very small town in a dark restaurant when of group of five to six men in uniforms appeared.

The men said they were Nepal police and had come to send the group back to China.

“[I was] very scared,” Sonam said.

The police started to converse with each other, arguing between themselves about what to do with the Tibetan refugees.

Sonam’s guide noticed that the men did not carry guns – a clear signal that these men were not police, but instead charlatans looking to be bought off.

While the fake police were speaking amongst themselves, Sonam’s guide gathered his group to explain his realization.

“Now get ready,” the guide said. “When I say run, everyone should run.”

One of the Nepalese men approached the group of Tibetans, saying that he took pity on them. If they paid the police, he would let them go.

“Run!” the guide cried, and Sonam and his friends scattered.

“We kind of shouted at these people [and ran],” Sonam explained. “They were just hoping to get some money.”

However, the last time Sonam was stopped, he was not so lucky.

“The third time we were … caught by real Nepal police,” Sonam said.

Sonam and his friends were walking on a small road along the bank of a river. The river was on one side and a large rock wall on the other. When the police came upon the group, there was nowhere to run.

“They had their guns and actually showed us their badges,” he said. “They were real.”

Sonam laughed and said, “That time we had to pay them.”

The Nepal police took what little money Sonam and his friends had, as well as their watches and some nice jackets.

“Luckily, some money we hid in our shoes, so they didn’t find it,” Sonam explained. “Somehow they let us go.”

It was not long after that Sonam arrived at the Tibetan reception center in Nepal. He was soon on his way to Delhi, India, where freedom was waiting.

Immediately upon his arrival, Sonam traveled to Drepung Loseling Monastery in southern India, where he took his vows to become a monk and began his life-long pursuit of education.

“My grandparents really wanted me to join a monastery,” he said. “My uncle, he had much influence on me I think. I just wanted to become a monk. So I did it.”

In the monastery, Sonam learned to read and write. He also became interested in science, participating in two science programs (Science Meets Dharma and Science for Monks), which prepared him for Emory.

Many monks in Sonam’s monastery, and other monasteries across India, were eager to attend Emory as part of the University’s Emory-Tibet Partnership. Sonam was one of six selected.

“I’m not sure how I was chosen,” he said. “I just got lucky.”

Since arriving at Emory, Sonam has expanded his scientific knowledge, as well as his understanding of American culture.

“Here people keep a planner,” he said. “This is really interesting for me. We don’t do that. Personally I don’t have this habit to keep a planner or, you know, do things on time. So this is really very helpful.”

There are many differences between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science, Sonam maintains, but also many similarities.

“In one of the scriptures the Buddha said his followers shouldn’t just follow his concepts just because he is Buddha, because he is the teacher,” Sonam said. “His followers should analyze and examine his concepts. So this is, I think, a big similarity, which I find interesting.”

In the next few years, Sonam and his fellow monks will continue studying modern science, examining the intersection of eastern and western thought.

Although Emory’s environment is very different than what Sonam is used to, he is excited to delve more deeply and continue his education.

“We are busy, but in a good way,” he said. “We are learning science.”

— By Arianna Skibell

Photo courtesy of Sonam Choephel

Brick Store Pub tends to be the only place my group of friends can agree on after 11 p.m., which is fine because they have the largest and best beer selection in Atlanta and what I’m convinced is the best pimento cheese dish in the greater perimeter area. Appetizers tend to be hearty, reasonably priced and great for splitting. Brick Store tends to attract an older crowd of Decaturites during its most packed hours, but Emory students start to fill in around midnight on weekend nights, so chances are good you’ll run into at least one person you know. The quiet and cozy atmosphere make it  a great place to wind down and have deeper conversation with friends after a night out.

125 E Court Square.
(404) 687-0990.
Open ‘til 2 a.m.

A good 20-minute drive away from Emory’s main campus, situated down Moreland Ave. past Little Five Points, Delia’s Chicken Sausage Stand is an adorably designed late-night institution that combines creative cuisine with down-home Southern cooking. The only meat on the menu is chicken sausage, but oh, the things they do with that sausage — smother it in cheese, BBQ sauce, sauerkraut, chili and more cheese. They’ve perfected the art of the “cupcake shake,” which just involves throwing a couple of homemade cupcakes and some ice cream into a blender. I grew up way south of the Mason-Dixon line and never experienced a Sweet Tea Slush (really, just a great brew of sweet tea in slushie ice) until I tried Delia’s. With the first sip, I felt like 20 years of my life had passed me by.

489 Moreland Ave. SE.
(404) 474-9651.
Open ‘til 3 a.m.

The last time I went to the Cheshire Bridge Waffle House, I arrived with a group of Wheel writers and editors at around 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday night. We met a man around the age of 65 who had recently been clubbing at a bar called “OPUS” across the street — not to be confused with the Online Pathway to University Students. After instructing us to take a series of “selfies” — one serious, one sassy, one smiling — our friend asked us to form a huddle around him, put one hand in each and yell out the word “love!” Any place where I can meet this kind of person at 1:30 a.m. is a place I am happy to be.

2264 Cheshire Bridge Rd.
(404) 634-9414.
Open 24 Hours.

Joe’s East Atlanta Coffee Shop is definitely worth the trip. Desserts include coconut and chocolate cakes, pretzel-topped cupcakes, moist brownies and unforgettable exquisite chocolate mousse. The ambiance is quintessentially “artsy,” and the baristas know how to make your day. If you’re ever confused as to which dessert you’re in the mood for, they will know and help you order it. They know your tastes better than you know yourself. Not only that, but the prices are reasonable, and it’s a great place to sit down, have some “me-time” and just enjoy yourself. Or do your homework.

Ever in the mood for some exquisite mousse and dark as Diablo coffee? Because I’m always JOEnesing.

510 Flat Shoals Ave. SE.
(404) 521-1122.

The Sweet Tooth Doctor (Dentist?) is in the house. Dr. Bombay’s, an Atlanta coffee and tea shop, is my personal favorite. The phrase “chillwave” is probably overused but this is the exact vibe I get from Dr. Bombay’s. Not only is the tea and coffee top-notch, but the desserts are homemade with organic and/or vegan options. Next to the array of baked goods is the selection of ice cream. From coconut to bubble gum, Dr. Bombay’s never fails to deliver (good for all ages!). And if you prefer smaller samples of sugary snacks, the daily High Tea from 3:30-5:30 p.m. offers just this option, consisting of a pot of tea made for two coupled with miniature cupcakes, an assortment of cookies, scones and jam.

And if these desserts don’t get you, the samosas sure as hell will.

1645 McLendon Ave. NE.
(404) 474-1402.

Cafe Intermezzo is a European coffee house founded in 1979. It currently has three locations in Georgia: Dunwoody, Midtown and near the Atlanta airport. Midtown’s probably your closest bet to success (though it’s worth the trip to any of the three locations).

There is something about the warm, Italian ambience that keeps you wanting and craving more. Though at first the numerous options may seem overwhelming, there really isn’t a “wrong choice.” Selections of dessert include a variety of tortes, cheesecakes, pies and crepes. My personal favorite is the Nutella-strawberry crepe. I know, original, right? But there’s nothing wrong with floating the delicious dessert mainstream. Add a cup of hot, black-as-night coffee and all of your worries will disappear. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you really can’t go wrong.

1065 Peachtree Rd. NE.
(404) 355-0411.

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