Student of the Month: Hafsa Abass

Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya

Major: Accounting

“Stay open-minded and try everything,” says Hafsa Abass, a MasterCard Foundation Scholar and student philanthropist at MSU who promotes education for young girls in Kenya and advocates for greater international cultural understanding. “Just because things are different, doesn’t make them worse.”

Hafsa’s journey to Michigan State began when she realized that after studying medicine for a year in Istanbul she was not doing what she wanted with her life. Hafsa’s nine older siblings, in a family of twelve, provided her with the perspective needed to evaluate her options. She could either stay in Kenya and be arranged to marry at a young age, become a doctor like the government had planned for her or study in the United States and develop independently of Nairobi. Studying in Kenya was “never an option” for Hafsa, who chose the third option and traveled to East Lansing.

The benefits of international education were always apparent to Hafsa, who natively speaks Swahili, is studying Arabic, and is fluent in English, Turkish, and Somali. However, the move to the United States was not without its difficulties. One of the biggest struggles for her revolved around staying true to her Islamic faith. The most common form of greeting people in the United States – a handshake – is considered a sin when done with someone of an opposing gender in her culture. “A lot of people [at MSU] don’t know about this,” remarks Hafsa. “They don’t mean anything bad by it, they just don’t know.” Hafsa thinks that explaining this to people is good because it educates others about her culture and makes them aware of different social norms. Being patient and having an objective approach when explaining a different culture to people is something Hafsa thinks is very important for international students in America.

Intrigued by the differences between people, Hafsa loves spending time in the library or by the Red Cedar reading and writing about cultures and the differences she sees between older and younger generations. “Writing is my life,” claims Hafsa. She hopes to one day be a published author.

As if that wasn’t aspirational enough, KERWA, a project that Hafsa and several other MasterCard Foundation Scholars have undertaken at MSU, aims at helping young girls in Africa afford a high school education. This project advocates for women empowerment in African Maasai culture where, sometimes girls as young as 12 years old, are illegally married off to men as old as 60. This environment has created a frightened population of young women who run away from home. KERWA (which stands for Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda) seeks to provide funding for high school education for these runaway girls. The program is starting small by funding one year of high school education which costs only $180, but hopes to eventually provide college level scholarships for study in the United States.

The MasterCard Foundation has been extremely supportive of this venture and has been a major part of Hafsa’s successful adaptation to life in East Lansing. Another resource that Hafsa has found very beneficial is MSU’s MRULE (Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience Program). Attending weekly MRULE meetings at her local Neighborhood Engagement Center has provided Hafsa with the opportunity to meet other international students, improve her intercultural communication skills and gain confidence speaking in a public setting.

Try new things. Meet new people. Discuss new ideas. Hafsa has become herself at MSU, and so can you.


Hafsa was interviewed by Dustin Rice, a senior at Michigan State and the OISS Sponsored Student Program intern. Dustin studies International Relations with an emphasis on German, Eastern European and Russian relations with the United States. He has studied in Brussels, Belgium and enjoys showing international students around MSU and East Lansing where he was born and raised.

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