Our MPP students: Henna Hundal

From advocating for the rights of Afghan religious minorities to launching a platform for world leaders to discuss policy responses to COVID-19, Henna has been working non-stop for the causes she cares about.

Henna Hundal is one of those people whose plate is constantly full, yet always seems to be able to take on more. She took a quick break from her work with Max Bell School’s Policy Lab to speak with us.

Henna came to the Max Bell School's MPP program from the United States, where she worked as a researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute while studying for a bachelor's degree in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology. “Growing up in California’s agrarian Central Valley, I got a firsthand look at a lot of inequities that arise within rural communities, especially around health care,” she recalls. Chronic diseases are common in the Central Valley, so Henna naturally spent her time at the HSCI studying fructose absorption in the human body.

After cutting her teeth in the health sciences, gaining a deeper understanding of public policy felt essential.

“I started thinking about what could make things better for the folks back at home. That’s what drew me to the Max Bell School's program. I wanted the tools to rethink how to take the scientific knowledge that’s generated in the lab and infuse that into public policy. COVID-19 has really illustrated how we need people who are involved in science and health care at the forefront of policy making, and how we need to build bridges between these domains.”

Henna Hundal interviews President George Vella of Malta

Henna Hundal interviews President George Vella of Malta

A unique offering

Several factors drew Henna to the School, but a few in particular stand out. “It's been incredible to be able to meet these faculty members who are so accomplished, yet so accessible,” she notes. “The selection of courses and the faculty are just top notch.”

The practical nature of the program was also a real draw, most notably the Policy Lab.

“It’s an exciting feature of the program. To see that our scholarship has tangible implications and applications for improving real people’s lives is very attractive.”

Scientist, student, knowledge broker

The MPP program supercharged Henna’s work, which extends from health sciences to foreign policy to public advocacy and beyond. Not content with the demands of being a full-time student, Henna’s extracurriculars (though that seems an understatement) offer a glimpse of her ambitions after her time at the Max Bell School.

Henna is a co-founder of the Bridging Borders Project, a public platform that convenes world leaders to discuss and share learnings from their COVID-19 response plans.

“I had a chance to speak with Prime Minister Lotay Tshering of Bhutan,” she mentions casually. “He’s actually a practicing doctor and he talked about the impact he saw in his country’s hospitals as soon as the pandemic hit. For me, that conversation really underlined the need to carve out space for health care leaders and doctors in the policy making process.”

Bridging Borders has also revealed additional layers to the social determinants of health that Henna first observed growing up. “I talked to Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. of Cherokee Nation and President Jonathan Nez of Navajo Nation. At one point in time, Navajo Nation recorded a greater per capita infection rate for coronavirus than any state in the US, and President Nez talked about how, despite those numbers, they actually had to initiate a lawsuit against the federal government to release their relief money. That illustrated so clearly how we still have these communities that are getting left behind and how we need better policies to bridge the gaps.”

Henna Hundal in conversation with Acting Prime Minister Luca Beccari of the Republic of San Marino

Henna Hundal in conversation with Acting Prime Minister Luca Beccari of the Republic of San Marino

Another urgent task

Henna has another pressing project to attend to over the summer. President Biden’s announcement that American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by September has created a dire situation for the country’s small Sikh and Hindu populations. Henna has been busy calling attention to the need to resettle these highly vulnerable groups in the pages of the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

“Right now there's this very critical window to turn up the dial on the call for protections. There are at least 700 Sikhs and Hindus left in Afghanistan. They're facing immediate danger, so that's another issue that I'm going to be focusing really heavily on as I graduate.”

Lots to do, more to come

Henna’s work on Bridging Borders and Afghan resettlements will continue in the weeks and months to come. At the time of this interview, she remained neck-deep in her studies and her work with the Max Bell School’s Policy Lab. “We’re examining the ‘she-cession’, which COVID-19 set in motion both in Canada and around the world. Many of my colleagues and I had firsthand experience working on pandemic policy, so we were drawn to analyzing how the pandemic impacted women and the steps we can take to move towards an inclusive economic recovery.” You can explore Henna's completed Policy Lab brief here.

Henna believes the Max Bell School has primed her for further success with her present and future endeavours. “I think the program has really given me a framework to understand what it takes to govern well, what it takes to develop public policies that work well, and how to develop these policies when you have stakeholders around the table with multiple competing interests.”

We get the feeling the next big thing is just on the horizon.


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