- The 31-year-old millennial who beat childhood cancer, held multiple roles in the Obama-Biden administration.
Ashwani K. Jain has managed to pack a lifetime worth of experiences – both good and bad – into a short 31 years. Jain has been lucky enough to beat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and go from being a Make-A-Wish kid to Make-A-Wish Ambassador; from a Title 1 Elementary School to earn two bachelor’s and one master’s degree; work in the public, private and non-profit sectors; and the crowning glory, serve in the Obama-Biden White House.
Jain, who ran unsuccessfully for Montgomery County Council in 2018, is seeking to win the gubernatorial race in Maryland in 2022. Incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is currently on his second term and cannot seek re-election to a third consecutive term. If elected, Jain will become the state’s first governor of color and first South Asian American governor, as well as the nation’s first millennial governor.
Jain spoke to American Kahani about beating childhood cancer, his family and what matters to him as a politician and a human being.
Son of immigrant parents, Jain’s mom moved to the U.S. from India while in high school and his dad, after college. “My mom and her siblings moved from India to Kansas with my nani and nana,” says Jain adding with a chuckle, “and my father moved with my bua (dad’s sister) to Texas. They met through the original online dating site — an Indian newspaper!”
After marriage his parents moved to Maryland to raise Jain and his younger sister. Jain, who’s born and raised in Montgomery County, says growing up his parents always impressed upon him the great opportunities afforded by the U.S. and Maryland and value of hard work. “I remember my mom talking about going to community college and working in a nursing home where she made minimum wage to pay for classes.” Jain also remembers his father’s stories of having to start from the ground up in America, although highly educated in India, a story many immigrants are familiar with. “He was struggling to find work because of the language barrier,” says Jain.
Soon his parents started a true “family” jewelry business as the whole family was involved. In fact, his sister is still involved in the business today. “Growing up we were told about the sacrifices it took to live a good life and the opportunities this country gave us to do that.” Jain adds, “That was the environment I grew up around – focused on education, business, appreciating the community around it and trying different ways to give back.”
When Jain thought life could not get any better, fate dealt him a cruel blow – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I was in the middle of my eighth grade and they found a tumor in my tonsil. We went to the doctor and obviously, it was a shock for all of us when they said cancer.” Jain, who as a young one had heard the term before, never really understood what it meant and thought it “only happened to old people.” Jain recalls a memory vividly. “The turning point for me when I knew this was serious was when I saw my parent cry.”
Luckily, the tumor was caught at an early stage and after four months of chemotherapy at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., Jain really came to appreciate his life “sitting in four walls of a hospital room that I didn’t think I would leave.”
He says he was surrounded by kids “who were going through different illnesses and cancer, many of them actually losing their battles. I saw their parents have conversations about paying their medical bills. I also felt a lot of guilt because my family was going through so much heartache and struggles, just to make sure I was healthy and survived this.” Recalling his childhood illness, Jain says “he was tired of being a statistic – that 13-year-old kid with cancer.”
Although, this attitude of others made Jain feel “less than” everyone else, he still counted his blessings. “I was lucky to have parents with medical insurance. My cancer wasn’t as bad as others around me and we were financially able to pay for my treatments.”
Jain remembers thinking while in the hospital that if he was lucky enough to get out of the hospital and be healthy, he “would make it count.”
Meeting Denzel Washington
And this is when he got involved with Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that provides wishes to kids ages 2 to 18, that are suffering from a chronic condition. “They reached out to my family and me, to make my wish come true. I had always wanted to meet Denzel Washington. He was and is still one of my favorite actors,” gushes Jain, adding, “I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. It turned out he was doing a Broadway Show in New York, in 2005, and Make-A-Wish took my family and me to see his show in NYC. We got front row seats and got to see him alive and then I got to go backstage and spend 20 mins with him. That was the first time I saw something good come out of my painful cancer experience. I saw my family happy. I was over the moon. And I wanted to replicate this feeling of something good coming out of pain to as many families as I could, that were going through something similar.”
A motivated Jain started volunteering with Make-A-Wish, working his way up to Make-A-Wish Ambassador. From there, came high school and his foray into politics. “In 2007, as a senior, Sen. Obama launched his campaign for president. His campaign reached out to my high school for volunteers.” Political involvement did not run in Jain’s family, but Jain saw “a candidate that looked more like me than anyone else I had seen in politics.”
Obama’s message on affordable healthcare touched a nerve for Jain. “But most importantly I felt a sense of empowerment, in taking a leadership role in his campaign, the same sense of empowerment I got with Make-a-Wish. It was the fact, that this campaign was taking a no body like me with no experience and offering me volunteer leadership roles, to organize my fellow student and my community. I saw a bridge to make a bigger impact outside my community.” Jain went from being a campaign volunteer to ultimately working for the Obama-Biden administration in the White House.
Now with two decades of fighting to expand opportunities for his community, Jain is now proud to say he’s a candidate for Maryland governor. “I understand some will say that this overly ambitious, eager millennial with a baby-face should wait his turn. But while a voice like mine has never been in the governor’s office, in a state that is younger and more diverse than it has ever been, voices like mine are growing and need to be represented,” says a confident Jain. “Representation matters at all levels of government, because that dictates how policies are created and enforced,” he adds. “Therefore, if brown people like us are not making our voices heard in rooms where decisions about our lives are being made, then how can those policies help us live a better life?”
Jain, who points out that brown people and people from diverse backgrounds are well-versed in hearing they are not qualified or good enough, within and outside the political arena, is very aware of the obstacles before him and the tremendous task he has in assuring people he is qualified for the job at hand. “My campaign is aiming to shift this narrative and to show people that I am not willing to be put into a box and put aside.”
Striving to build an inclusive campaign, showcasing the “power of our voices,” Jain aims to show that these diverse voices are growing around the nation. “This is our time to fight for what we believe in.”
The man who has high hopes for Maryland says, “People like me are tired of a broken system and waiting our turn, all while having the same debates, over the same issues, with the same people for decades. We are all ready for a change and understand that leadership is not just about age, and that elected experience is not the only kind that matters. The world has changed and our politics needs to adapt. And decisions about us should not be made without us.”
With an agenda that focuses on structural changes, Jain is determined to make the state government more inclusive, transparent and accountable to all communities. “A part of this is getting money out of politics, which is why all my events will be free and I will ban the governor from owning or trading stock.”
Relief, Recovery and Reform
The other arm of his platform — Relief, Recovery and Reform – is a comprehensive approach to solving issues. “It looks at all the issues, not in isolation, but as being all connected.” With this platform, an ambitious Jain is looking to reach out to those traditionally marginalized by society and “reform the ways in which politics functions.” Speaking of inclusion, Jain, who uses the pronouns he/him points out that the reason he does that is because he has done “a lot of advocacy work” with the LGBTQ community and considers himself an ally. “I am part of the community, I do not belong to their community, but I understand their struggles. One of their struggles which ties into the struggles faced by South Asians is the idea of ‘feeling like the other’, feeling like we do not belong,” he says. “Being discriminated against for who we are, how we look like and in many case, who we love. This is my small way of showing inclusiveness, of being accepting to everyone. You are a part of this community and need to feel like a part of it.”
Politics, not being the golden career for South Asian offsprings, Jain laughs when talking about all the “worried” uncles and aunties that kept asking his parents whether he entered politics because he wasn’t doing well in school. This first-generation Indian American laughingly says, “They just didn’t see politics as an opportunity for their kids. They kept wondering why I wasn’t trying to be a doctor, lawyer or even an entrepreneur.” Jain is also quick to admit that he is incredibly fortunate for his “super supportive parents” who stood up for him and his passion – politics – telling naysayers that “this is his way of giving back to a community that has given him so much.”
With his dedication to hard work, ethics, investment in the community, community service and the idea of family, which Jain says “is integral to his Indian upbringing”, this young, motivated and idealistic politician may just be the candidate that Maryland needs as governor.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.