OISS Intern Yue (Ethel) Xu sat down with Humphrey Fellowship Scholar Ashna Mahepal to learn more about her experiences in her home country of Suriname, her time at MSU, and what cultural exchange means to her.

Ashna Mahepal
Humphrey Fellowship Scholar
Home Country: Suriname
Department: Center for Advanced Study of International Development (CASID)

A member of the cabinet of the Vice President of Suriname, Ashna Mahepal is founder and CEO of the foundation Young Help Suriname (YHS).  Under her leadership, YHS aims to support the success of Suriname’s youth.  Ashna is a professional with boundless energy and eagerness to expand her horizons and a dedicated and compassionate supporter for Surinamese youth. Her passion is to help others and as such, she works tirelessly on social work, volunteering and activities that empower young business entrepreneurs.  

Tell us about yourself and what you did in your home country, Suriname?

Ashna’s career at the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation in Suriname started back in 2008. She had been working there for eight years as a project manager until she assumed a position at the cabinet of the Vice President of Suriname. While with the Ministry, her career rapidly advanced due to her expertise in electrical engineering, allowing her to work in multiple sectors in the Ministry. In fact, she managed various projects that were worth up to 180 million US dollars. Her ultimate goal was to stimulate improve the country’s overall economy.

What brought you to MSU?

When she applied for the Humphrey Fellowship, MSU was already at the top of her list of institutions she wanted to attend, in part for its abundant personal and professional development opportunities. She was only six months into her tenure with the Vice President, however, when she received the notification that she was admitted to MSU. She confesses that she was very excited but also nervous as well.  It was hard for her to part with her Cabinet duties so soon after she took the position, but at the same time she was ecstatic about the potential MSU could bring into her life. After much reflection and with full support of her colleagues, she decided to pursue the opportunity to study at MSU.

And MSU has not disappointed! Ashna has engaged in various activities and workshops at MSU, gained new perspectives and made many connections with other professionals. In terms of her career development, she took quite a few leadership and entrepreneurship classes to expand her horizons in hope that she will be able to bring new perspectives to her home country. She has also joined various MSU associations and developed relationships with other students and scholars that will certainly last a lifetime. For example, she visited LinkedIn Co. and learned about its innovative corporate culture. She also became the member of United Nations Association (UNA) of the U.S. and its chapter here at MSU and attended the UNA Global Summit in New York. Through these organization, she actively engages in activities with youth who aspire to make a change in the world.

Any advice for young entrepreneurs?

“Young entrepreneurs’ main motivation shouldn’t be money,” said Ashna. She explained that more people start up a business nowadays with only the internet and a laptop. Millennials’ imagination doesn’t know any boundaries. They often give life to their business by first creating a website and it requires sufficient knowledge of and access to the internet. Ashna says that using free tools on the Internet to help launch their businesses is a good example of entrepreneurship these days.  Entrepreneurs need access and knowledge to effectively leverage the power of the Internet.

Ashna also mentioned a conversation with the CEO from local Lansing company Biggby Coffee that stressed that young people need reminding of the importance of trying, failing and learning from their mistakes. Good business models almost always have experienced countless trials and errors.

“It’s not ‘you’ that is failing, it is simply just the idea that is failing. Adjust the idea or throw it away and start something anew,” Ashna said with a big grin. “If you are able to generate one idea, why not think of another one?”

What is the importance of cultural exchange?

When she first came to the U.S., she was very much surprised to see that many teenagers were passionate about volunteering for community events. The sight of the youth in the U.S. volunteering for community services totally changed her stereotype of U.S. culture that had been shaped mostly by the media, such as TV series and movies back in her home country.  American teenagers were often portrayed as disobedient and aggressive to those around them, including their own parents. Ashna was also amazed at how friendly people are here.

“Their courtesy extends from their holding doors open for others and inviting others to their homes,” she said. She suspects their generosity and kindness to others may be rooted in Christianity, which it is not common in Suriname.

Ashna was not only attentive to the positive aspects of the U.S. culture, but also noted some worrying issues. She brought up an example of NYC, where she visited three times. Every time she visited the city, she was always amazed at how vigorous, energetic and glamorous the city is. She could not help but notice, however, that the homeless were everywhere begging for food and money. Ashna is very much concerned with the pervasive and spreading poverty in the U.S. It’s well-hidden but people notice and yet they don’t actively jump in to solve the issue.

“There are so many things people can do to help end poverty,” Ashna enthusiastically said.



To learn more about the Humprhey Fellows program, visit http://casid.isp.msu.edu/humphrey-fellowship-program/about/.

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