Elon senior earns $15,000 public service award to support nonprofit work

Surya Shahi, who is majoring in acting and international studies, has received the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award to advance his nonprofit that is building a school in his native Nepal. 


Surya Shahi ‘18, whose nonprofit Sapura Dream Foundation is laying the groundwork for a new school in his native Nepal, has received the competitive and prestigious Samuel Huntington Public Service Award.

One of only three nationally to be honored with the Huntington Award this year, Shahi will receive a $15,000 stipend to support the work of the nonprofit he created while at Elon. Sapura Dream Foundation seeks to increase access to quality education for students in the rural, impoverished community where he grew up in Nepal.

“I would love for this to be a model for the government to look at and say, ‘this is exactly what we need to do,’” Shahi said.

Sapura Dream Foundation takes its name from Shahi’s nickname for his sister, who though qualified to enter college in Nepal was nearly kept from pursuing a degree because of economic and societal challenges. Shahi originally launched the foundation as a vehicle to help raise money to send his sister to college, but it has since expanded to address the factors that exclude many of the youth in his home district of Humla not just from higher education, but from quality education in general. Those include factors such as politics, infrastructure, gender, caste, disability and socioeconomic status.

It’s an area that Shahi has pursued through undergraduate research during his time at Elon. As a recipient of the Leadership Prize at Elon, Shahi has spent the last 18 months focused on drilling down into some of the root causes that are keeping quality education out of reach for many in Nepal. “The kids who understand what it means to live in poverty — if they make it out, they are the ones most likely to come back and make change in their communities,” Shahi said.

Shahi has traveled back to Humla, one of the poorest districts in the country, and talked with politicians, Ministry of Education officials, district education officers, parents, teachers, students and nongovernment organizations. His research in Nepal has helped formulate the work going forward for the Sapura Dream Foundation, which expects to open five classrooms in a new school by this time next year and to have completed the school by the end of 2019 or early 2020. He expects it to begin serving 100 local students in its first year, students who haven’t had access to quality education.

“I want to make sure that the community is involved in the building of the school,” Shahi said. “The people of Humla are poor, but they are resourceful.”

Shahi’s mentor for his Leadership Prize work, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Mussa Idris, said he is a role model as a young leader and an innovative social entrepreneur. “Shahi has a clear sense of purpose in uplifting his siblings and disadvantaged youth in his community through leadership and education,” Idris said. “Based on his ethnographic research and lived experience, Shahi understands very well the root causes of poverty and barriers to quality education in his native Humla, Nepal. He is a strong advocate on the transformative quality of education for all.”

Shahi has received a $7,000 grant from the nonprofit Rural Empowerment and Development Iniative (READI) that is working to improve education in Humla, and is working with partners to develop plans to make the new school sustainable over the long term. Mountaineering is a major draw in Nepal, home to Mount Everest and eight of the world’s highest peaks, and Shahi believes he can tap into that appeal by marketing Humla as a trekking destination, with the school benefiting from trekking tourism in the area.

“We travel around the world and we learn so much, and with that knowledge, we can inform ourselves and see what we can do as leaders,” Shahi said. “I think it’s time for the youth to take charge and lead the way.”

Shahi is the third Huntington Award recipient from Elon in recent years. Josephine Gardner ’17 received the award last year to support Ynegat-Chora, her nonprofit that is helping empower women in Ethiopia. Yasmine Arrington ’15 received the award in 2015 to support her work with her nonprofit, ScholarCHIPS, an organization that helps the children of imprisoned adults attend college. 

Elon students interested in the awards like the Huntington Award are encouraged to visit the National and International Fellowships Office in Powell building or call (336) 278-5749.