Surinamese youth win with robotics

Group of people smiling (© Vyash Hirasingh)
Ashna Mahepal (front center) poses for a photo with the members of the Tech Genius Team in Paramaribo, Suriname, on March 29, 2019. (© Vyash Hirasingh)

Don’t ask Ashna Mahepal whether she’s disappointed the teams she’s taken to the FIRST Global Challenge international robotics competition didn’t win.

Mahepal, 38, founder of Young Help Suriname, which trains a teenage robotics team for the annual challenge, will tell you the contest has nothing to do with crushing the competition.

Rather, she says, it has everything to do with spurring the next generation of Surinamese students to work together and build robots that soon could help solve the pressing issues of our time, such as making energy more sustainable and cleaning up polluted oceans.

“It’s about getting new students to be able to be part of this inspirational experience to connect with like-minded peers,” Mahepal says. “It’s all about the friendship and partnerships which they build.”

Mahepal is a 2016 alumna of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, a State Department exchange program that has offered 250 annual fellowships to people in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Woman standing next to train (© Sophia-Joy Soli)
Ashna Mahepal explores Detroit in 2017. (© Sophia-Joy Soli)

These fellowships help propel recipients to develop entrepreneurship initiatives. As the head of Young Help Suriname, Mahepal spent six weeks total in the U.S., learning business skills and being mentored by two American educators at the Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in North Carolina.

The experience connected her to other young, bright movers and shakers who also dared to dream big. “For the first time in my life, [I] saw a group of people who had all those crazy ideas that I had,” Mahepal said.

Through those fellowship connections, Mahepal heard about and agreed to manage a robotics team from Suriname that would compete in Washington against teams from around the world. With little more than two months, she used social media and her connections to cobble together a team of three students and one mentor. The students didn’t know anything about robotics, but they were eager to learn. That inaugural group placed 49th out of 163 teams in the competition.

Those students would go on to serve as peer mentors for the 2018 team that competed in Mexico City and placed 103 out of 161 teams, for the 2019 team that competed in Dubai and placed 148 out of 189 teams, as well as for the foundation’s Tech Genius Project in 2019, which focuses on robotics training and raising awareness of science, technology, engineering and math.

Group of people smiling (© Kishan Ramsukul)
Ashna Mahepal (center right, seated) with the members of the robotics team in Paramaribo, Suriname, in October 2019. (© Kishan Ramsukul)

More important, Mahepal says, exposure from the competitions open doors.

One student mentor secured a programming job with Telesur, the government-owned telecommunications company. An adult mentor earned a place in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, an exchange for adult business leaders, and also landed a job at Staatsolie, the Suriname government’s oil company. Other companies have offered to hire student team members for internships.

The embassy funds also allowed some of Mahepal’s Tech Genius Project students to travel to educate students in a Suriname indigenous community about robots. All told, the robotics projects have reached roughly 400 Suriname students.

This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins.