CAFNR Celebrates Asian American, Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Q&A with Rishabh Mahendra

Mahendra is a PhD student in DASS and native of India

Rishabh Mahendra poses outdoors

Rishabh Mahendra, doctoral student in agricultural and applied economics, has worked to make an impact since he stepped foot on Mizzou’s campus. He is the director of the Deaton Scholars Program, in which student teams use creativity to solve socioeconomic and environmental issues around the world; president of the Division of Applied Social Sciences’ Graduate Student Association; and founder of Universities Fighting World Hunger-Mizzou.

In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we spoke to Rishabh, a native of India, about his heritage, as well as about his field of study and career plans.

What inspired you to work in your field?

I was good at social sciences during my school days, and that made me choose economics for my undergraduate degree. While pursuing economics, I was introduced to the concept of environmental economics. The scarcity definition of economics intrigued me and is something that still drives a lot of my thought process. Despite wanting to become a politician in the future and understanding that I will have to serve human needs, I also understand that there won’t be a world left to fulfill human needs if there’s no nature left. I am pursuing a PhD in applied economics with a focus on environmental and development economics, and I am working on creating an organizational structure that will help fill gaps in existing ecosystem restoration and conservation efforts. A lot of my inspiration also comes from a Cree American prophecy that says, “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”

How do you identify within the Asian American, Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander community?

I was born in an ancient city in India (Patna, known as Patliputra in the past) and grew up in another old city (Chennai, known as Madras in the past). I believe, in terms of personality, I have a blend of two different regions of India.

How has your heritage shaped the person you are today?

As in Indian, I grew up hearing several phrases that have left an indelible impression on me. One of them is ‘Atithi Devo Bhava,’ which translates as “Guest is God.” It is also the tagline of an Indian campaign to treat tourists as Gods and to develop a sense of responsibility for our visitors. Another such phrase is ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,’ which means that all living beings on Earth are a family, which I wholeheartedly believe.

Does your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

My extended families on both my father’s and mother’s sides, especially on my mother’s side, have always welcomed visitors. There isn’t a week that goes by when they don’t have someone over for lunch or dinner from outside their house. These gatherings are often uninvited. These values have guided my family (my parents). My father, who recently retired as a teacher, taught a language as his primary responsibility, but he was constantly surrounded by students who wanted to know how to study other subjects. Seeing this, I realized that one should not limit oneself. I’ve always referred to my mother as Mother India because she has always treated every child she sees as her own, and she enjoys cooking for others. Many of these others were my father’s young colleagues who were leaving their home for the first time for work. And I’m doing my best to adhere to their principles, which have now become a family tradition.

Who are the role models or mentors who have influenced you or helped guide you?

Several people in my life have influenced or assisted me in becoming who I am today. I wake up every day determined to never give up, and this is the least I can do to honor their contributions to my life. My grandparents and parents shaped my personality, and I try to emulate their values of honesty and generosity. Smt. Rajeshwari Sundar, one of my schoolteachers, was the first to point out that my visionary ideas would be ideal for the field of social sciences. Dr. Madhurima (a professor at my undergraduate university, Central University of Tamil Nadu) was the first person whose words inspired me to begin volunteering and leading for social causes. Dr. Krishna Reddy and Dr. T. Sengadir from the same university gave me the encouragement I needed to launch an initiative to educate the children of construction workers. In 2013, my conversations with Dr. Vinayak Kale assisted me in determining my life’s purpose.

And, in terms of motivation, influence, or assistance, enrolling at Mizzou has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In my first semester, I met Prof. Michael Cook, whose magical teaching style inspired the idea for my doctoral research that I am currently working on. My regular conversations with him after finishing his course helped me learn a lot about the United States, its history, and agricultural cooperatives. Mizzou also introduced me to Dr. Anadil Iftekhar and Prof. Kerry Clark, without whom my involvement on campus would not have progressed as quickly. One of the most important people in a PhD student’s life is their advisor, and I am fortunate to have Prof. Harvey James as mine. Anyone who knows him knows what a nice person he is. When I graduate, I want to be as disciplined as he is and as supportive as he is. He never says no to a new idea, but he also never says yes blindly. He asks all pertinent questions to ensure that one does not end up going in the wrong direction. As a student in one of his courses, I learned how beneficial a healthy classroom environment can be when a professor does not force you to think about your grades. That also reminds me of Dr. Courtney Schultz from CAFNR’s PRST department and Prof. Clayton Blodgett from the Geography Department. If I had to rate all of my professors/teachers, they would be among the best. I’ll never forget how relaxed (and clearly informative) their classes were. Dr. Schultz is one of the most patient professors I’ve met, and if and when I become a professor, I’d try to instill the same level of patience in my students.

What does Asian American, Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?

AANHPI month allows us to celebrate diversity, raise awareness, provide a sense of representation, and promote unity. And, as a follower of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, I believe it is critical that we talk about everyone, make everyone feel like they belong here, and, most importantly, respect everyone, because everyone deserves it.