Sneha Pujani’s parents could hardly believe it. In fact, they still don’t. She laughs about it while speaking from her downtown Phoenix apartment, situated within walking distance of the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University — and 9,000 miles from mom and dad’s home in Mumbai.
As a Thunderbird SHARE Fellow, both Pujani’s tuition and housing are funded by donors of the ambitious program, which provides scholarship and mentorship for exceptional students from developing countries who otherwise may not have the resources to attend the school.
“My parents think it’s way too good to be true,” said Pujani, her smile uncontained.
She enthusiastically speaks of her new life on the other side of the world — she frequents the downtown Phoenix farmers market, so much so that she’s come to know many of the vendors — and is equally enamored by her Thunderbird experience. She’s even joined ASU’s scuba diving club, just for fun.
SHARE is opening new doors for scholars like Pujani, who holds a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications engineering and an MBA from the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies in Mumbai. She’s a project management professional and engineer responsible for having overseen more than 130 IT projects for India’s largest telecoms operator.
But Pujani sought more: a global education to further her aspirations. She aims to be a global affairs expert, “working with institutions all over the world and also part of international organizations helping untangle the complicated relationships between nations.”
So she began Googling the top global management graduate programs in the world. She even made a spreadsheet to sort through her options. Pujani quickly discovered Thunderbird, and a welcoming network that’s opening new doors for international students thanks to one of the school’s very own.
Creating a community
Marshall Parke is a 1977 Thunderbird graduate who has spent much of his career working in emerging markets around the world. From the get-go, he found Thunderbirds everywhere he went — that is, Americans with Thunderbird degrees.
“I started thinking that it would be interesting to provide locals with access to a Thunderbird education with the hopes that they would come home at some point and participate in using their skills and knowledge to build their countries,” Parke said.
The wheels were set in motion, and SHARE came to life in 2008.
But earning a degree, as Parke came to realize through his work in developing countries, is only half the battle. Students also need access to strong networks and professional mentoring in order to collaborate and compete on equal footing with economically privileged classmates.
“Early on,” he said, “we realized that to bring these students to the U.S. and immerse them in Thunderbird was more than a full-time undertaking for them, and that meant that in many instances we needed to provide a broader level of support than just tuition.”
Parke recognized he needed his own support to execute this vision. That’s when he brought in Maria Houle, a fellow Thunderbird alum, to be the executive director of the program. She is the connector between students and mentors, many of them Thunderbird alumni and others Houle has known professionally.
“Marshall had a strong desire to share his success by setting up something for students from developing countries, but his own experience had been that mentorship was really important,” Houle said. “What he didn’t want to do was have students come and then not feel supported or not be able to get good jobs when they left campus.”
Houle does it all for SHARE Fellows; there are cultural issues to consider, and locating proper resources. Conversations about how to interview, how to work a room, how to dress, how to effectively network without being too invasive or too humble. Houle, essentially, is the mama bear of the bunch. Their support system.
She also oversees the vetting process, which includes a series of virtual interviews — conducted wherever the candidate can find Wi-Fi. One of America’s many conveniences often taken for granted is a precious commodity in other countries.
Houle recalls interviewing a young man in a suit and spotting a poster of a minion behind him.
“Excuse me, is that a minion behind you?” she remembers asking. “He was like, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m at a McDonald’s to get Wi-Fi, and a friend of mine has locked the playroom door to keep the children out so that I could have an office to have my interview.’
“The second time I interviewed him, there would be a light that would come on his face and I asked him about it. He said, ‘Well, I’m at the doctor getting the blood tests I need for my U.S. visa, and I didn’t want to miss the meeting with you, so I’m outside the hospital in the parking lot.’ He was pretending like it was nothing.”
Video by ASU Foundation
Philanthropy in action
“I love when Maria talks about SHARE,” said Megan Petty, senior associate director of development at Thunderbird.
It’s easy to see why. Houle’s passion for the program fuels its ongoing success. So does a stream of gifts made by alumni, friends and donors of Thunderbird, which ensures full tuition and expense money for fellows so they can fully participate in campus life, take advantage of unpaid internships and attend academic programs.
Petty estimates the cost to be close to $100,000 per student. Roughly six are chosen to join the program each year, and by 2021 they will have had approximately 75 SHARE Fellows from 38 different countries, including South Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Ghana, Colombia, Togo, Northern Cyprus, Peru and the Philippines.
More than 80 donors have collectively contributed $4.5 million to make this happen, greatly contributing to the success of Campaign ASU 2020 and its impact on ASU students.
“The people that are invested in this program are very, very committed to it,” Petty said. “They don’t just donate once, one and done. They’re not just investing in a student. They’re investing in fellows who can create a ripple effect in their communities back home when they leave, and that’s the big selling point for prospective supporters of the program.”
“Some come from middle-class families that, in their country, means they can’t afford to come to the States for school, but some are orphans or refugees,” Houle added. “They’re coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds too, but they have so much in common. When they’re with donors, the donors are just enchanted.”
While tuition is fully covered, the expense money is considered a loan, as Houle explained: “It’s a good-faith loan. No payment schedule, no interest. They opt in, and take as much as they want up to a pretty generous set limit. Almost all of them take the full amount, and a good portion of them have started slowly paying back. The others pay back by mentoring and other forms of participation and support until they are in a position of financial security that enables them to pay back the loan.
“We started developing this sort of community, and what happened is the students started to feel really tied into the community, really thankful to the donors because they, in turn, will be donors.”
The goal, Houle explains, is to have SHARE Fellows “graduate pretty employable or close to being employed.”
“The selection is not based on people that just have a sad story,” she said. “These are students that are chosen because we believe they can make social change in their region.”
Irene Kinyanguli is a 2019 SHARE alum who always wanted to make her home country of Tanzania a better place, particularly for women there who marry young and, without education and employment, succumb to poverty. She’s now back in Tanzania working as an analyst for Dalberg and hopes to inspire and encourage young people around her to seek education and attain their dreams.
Borijan Borozanov, a proud SHARE alum (’14) and Fulbright Scholar, returned to his home country of Macedonia and has greatly impacted the economy by establishing the electronic and safety division for Aptiv, which has hired 500 local employees. He is plant manager and managing director of the Macedonia plant, which proudly produces auto parts that are found in 10% of the vehicles worldwide.
“Many of these students,” said Parke, “have gone home where they are successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives, venture capitalists, impact investors and senior government officials. They come home with a powerful American business education taught in a culturally sensitive environment, and respectful of the nuances of our cultural differences.”
Once or twice a year, Parke is able to join a dinner that includes SHARE students, committee members and donors. It’s powerful, he said, “to see just how dynamic and enthusiastic these students are, and I love hearing how they got to Thunderbird and what they want to do with their lives.”
Pujani has dreams of creating a program like SHARE back in India.
“I want them to experience the stress-free experience that education should be,” she said. “Education for all and, more importantly, the global education that’s missing from the world today is what I want to create.”
Ninety percent of SHARE Fellows are actively engaged alumni, and 35% have donated financially to SHARE. Half are back in their home region, leaning on their Thunderbird education to implement change in their countries.
“It’s because of philanthropy that we’re able to recruit from such diverse locations,” said Petty. “That message is so strong and makes the case for why philanthropy is so important at Thunderbird. This underscores the importance of it, to support these opportunities.”
This article was originally published by the ASU Foundation on Medium.
ASU Foundation, one of Arizona’s oldest nonprofits, raises and invests private contributions to Arizona State University.
Top photo: The donor-driven SHARE fellowship program is providing scholarship and mentorship support to top students from emerging markets around the world who aim for change in their communities. Photo by Jonathan Ward/ASU Thunderbird