| September 22, 2020

Interview: There could be more Nepalis at Harvard

Suzanne Shende is the Director of the Master in Public Administration Edward S. Mason Program (Mason Program), the flagship international program of Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). This program for mid-career professionals brings together around 80 demonstrated leaders from developing, newly industrialized and transitional countries to prepare them for more challenging roles, both within and beyond their native countries.

Subhash Ghimire and Biswas Baral caught up with Shende, who is in Kathmandu to explore ways to widen the scope of partnership between HKS and Nepal, at Hotel Annapurna on Tuesday.

First of all we would like to know what brings you to Nepal.

The Mason Program supports leaders and policy-influencers from different sectors: press, government, NGOs, social movements and academia who want to create a better world. The program began 58 years ago in the context in which the United States and experts in universities were being called on to go out and help "developing countries". This is how it started. Gradually, we realized that it is more effective and ethical to bring these leaders to Harvard, teach them valuable skills so that they can go back and improve their communities.

So why Nepal? Nepal is a country of superlatives. It has the highest mountain in the world, it has an extremely rich ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity and its people are known for their warmth. At the same time, it has a turbulent history and still faces many challenges. This is a moment of great promise. People want to see the country move ahead on the path of prosperity and better governance. This is one reason why I am here. This is why Harvard Kennedy School of Government is so excited about strengthening leadership and other capabilities of Nepali leaders who are already doing good work and expect us to further improve their skill-set.

Mason Program is for mid-career professionals. How do mid-career professionals from Nepal benefit by attending the program?

We don't expect people to come to Kennedy School and change things overnight. But it is a place where we bring together people from diverse backgrounds so that they can discuss different issues and try to figure out what works and what doesn't. If certain things worked somewhere, could we have made things better? If things didn't work out, why didn't they? We have people thinking about topics like economic development, trade, finance and sustainable tourism. Nepal is currently in transitional phase and it has lots of challenges. Now the leaders from here can learn a lot from what other countries have gone through, form their successes and failures—this is what we are looking to do. Bring them all together so that they can discuss problems and come upon workable solutions. Our professors and faculty deal with other important issues like role of women, use of natural resources and relationship with donors. This way, Nepali leaders can learn from Harvard and Harvard gets to learn from the unique experiences of Nepal.

Are you also exploring possible areas of partnership with the government of Nepal?

Yes, why not? I am certainly interested in talking to people from the government and learn about how they view the challenges before the country and how we at Harvard could help bring about meaningful change in Nepal.

Many Nepalis are intimidated by the Harvard brand. Help us demystify Harvard for Nepalis.

Everyone at Kennedy School, from the professors to the Deans, are engaged with the world. Most people have been advisors to (or working for) governments and NGOs and really care about making change on the ground. So we have people like Larry Summers who has worked within the US government and people like Marshall Ganz who are rooted in social movements. Harvard Kennedy School is a place where you learn from other points of view. In Mason Program, we take in mid-career professionals who have at least seven years of experience, and an average of 12-14 years of experience, who have been doing impressive work, those who are leaders, those who have strong academics and are committed to public service.

We are looking for people who are using all their smarts, all their energy, to make change. To a certain extent, I don't even want to convince people to come. When you feel deep inside like 'I am doing great things, I am making great effort, I care more about my people than anything else in the world, and I want to figure out how to do this better'—that's the person we are looking for. You don't necessarily have to come from elite schools or have certain academic background, but you have to be making a difference, demonstrating how dedicated you are to a cause. Harvard shouldn't be seen like a citadel up in the mountain that can't be accessed.

Do you have data on Nepalis who have been to Kennedy School?

I can't come up with numbers from the top of my head. We have had Nepali students who have attended Harvard and come back and done amazing things. But we also feel that Nepal has been underrepresented, which is one reason why we are here. There is the institutional strength and educational system in Nepal to produce the kind of people who will flourish at Harvard, yet there has not been a consistent pipeline of students from Nepal. Talking about our Nepali alumni, we have people in the National Planning Commission, editors of important newspapers, people working for think-tanks, the UN, women working for women's empowerment.

Do you also have to have a level of proficiency in English language?

Absolutely. Not just that. If you have only seven years of experience, you will have to be a superstar compared to the people who have double that experience. Likewise, there is no age limit. But you have to have that spark; you should be doing innovative things; you should be constantly pushing the envelope.

Yes, we ask for a high level of English proficiency. I have come across many highly talented people who would have made amazing students but who were deficient in English. We have realized over time that for our students to extract maximum benefit from the program, they will have to be well-versed in English. There is a very heavy reading load, a very high bar for writing quality, so you do need a high level of English proficiency.

A big concern for potential Nepali students is cost. Is it a full scholarship program?

Unfortunately, that is not the case. With the Mason Program, we are able to fund a third of the class. This year, due to the generosity of donors, we were able to distribute four million dollars just for students of Mason Program. Other programs at Kennedy School also have financial aid. You can also get full scholarship. Do you have to be one of the strongest candidates to be eligible for such financial aid? You do. But do we also lose students because they can't pay? Again, we do. We are looking to constantly enlarge our funds so that we can give more in scholarship. But it's never enough. When we offer financial aid, it is not just a nice gesture or window dressing. We offer financial aid to make it possible for highly qualified students to attend Harvard.

What are the chances of a Nepali student getting into Mason Program all costs covered?

There have been students from Nepal who have had full scholarship. So yes, it is possible. It's happened in the past and I hope to make it happen again.

How does Mason Program relate to the communities form where you pick your students?

Each student is different. Sometimes they come back from Harvard and start doing what they were doing even better. Impact is always going to be long-term. Our graduates have done amazing things. Many countries rely on remittances. Some of our graduates from these remittance-receiving countries thought: wouldn't it be wonderful if they could somehow send other goods (like medicine) just like they can remit money from one country to another? What if someone in Washington DC has the medicine that someone in Nepal needs? How do we create formal channels to make this happen? This is the kind of social entrepreneurship Harvard fosters. Our graduates make meaningful change in their communities.