President Obama’s Mandela Washington Fellowship at UMaine

This summer the University of Maine hosted 25 emerging public management leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF), the flagship program of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).

The Mandela Fellows spent six-weeks — June 17–July 31 — in Maine, participating in academic, professional and recreational activities statewide.

MWF is an academic and leadership program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, which provides opportunities for outstanding young African leaders to hone their skills at the nation’s top universities.

This year, the University of Maine was one of 37 universities chosen to partner with the fellowship.

The Maine Mandela Fellows were part of a larger group — 1,000 young African leaders, ages 25 to 35 who were selected from more than 43,000 applications — to study at institutes focused on business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership, public management or energy.

They are all emerging leaders and experts in their fields with established records of accomplishment in promoting innovation and positive change in their organizations, institutions, communities and countries.

The cohort of fellows who attended UMaine were from Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

The Institute on Public Management hosted at UMaine offered overviews of regional, economic and workforce development, financial management in public and nonprofit organizations, environmental policy management, and the global knowledge economy.

The institute was supported by faculty and staff from the School of Economics, School of Policy and International Affairs, Foster Center for Student Innovation, Climate Change Institute and School of Marine Sciences.

Carol Kim, the vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, served as the program director and co-led the institute with Jonathan Rubin, professor of economics with the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, and Daniel Dixon, sustainability director.

Rubin, academic director of the institute, was inspired by the cohort’s vision and energy.

“Each of the fellows has a strong desire to make their country better,” said Rubin adding, “They are the next generation of African leaders.”

During their stay, the fellows followed a rigorous agenda that included academic coursework, site visits, community service activities and cultural experiences.

The fellows participated in academic sessions with UMaine faculty on topics including leadership, climate change, renewable energy, water resource management, fiscal policy and accountability, governance, and Maine culture and history.

They toured the Maine Public Utilities Commission, Maine Turnpike Authority and Maine International Trade Center, and met with governmental leaders including, the Deputy Commissioner of Finance Michael Allen, the Public Utilities Commissioner Bruce Williamson and U.S. Ambassador Pamela White.

Gov. Paul LePage hosted the fellows for tea and a discussion about leadership at the Maine State House in Augusta.

“We met with businesses and business leaders all over the state,” said Rubin. “These [fellows] are men and woman with real influence in their home countries and it is important to show them what Maine businesses can do.”

Some of the businesses that participated were E2Tech, ReVision Energy, Exeter Agri-Energy, EcoMaine, Casella Resource Solutions and Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners.

Rubin hopes that the connections the fellows made during their stay translate into potential business partnerships between Maine and African nations.

Cultural and community engagement activities were also an important focus of the institute, allowing the fellows an opportunity to better understand the unique cultural landscape of Maine outside the professional and academic experience.

The Penobscot Nation welcomed the fellows during a visit to Indian Island, where they learned about Maine’s history and cultural heritage from native leaders, including Chief Kirk Francis, Tribal Historian James Francis and Tribal Representative Donna Loring.

The fellows explored Acadia National Park on foot and by boat, toured the state’s lakes and rivers, ate lobster on the coast, experienced candle-pin bowling, and attended a Sea Dogs baseball game in Portland after learning to play with the UMaine athletics staff.

A brave few even sampled lobster ice cream in Bar Harbor.

The fellows volunteered their time at UMaine’s Roger’s Farm where they learned organic farming techniques and assisted with manual pest control, weeding, planting, pruning, composting and cultivation.

Each fellow’s visit included a weekend home stay with the family of a local resident.

As much as the fellows learned from the community, the institute provided an invaluable opportunity for them to learn from one another and build a network of African leaders for the future.

Mandela fellow Karine Rassool, from Seychelles, an island nation nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of Kenya, applied to the fellowship to not only study in the U.S., but also for the invaluable opportunity to meet and network with young leaders from other African nations.

“I am one person from a country of 90,000 people — I am a dot on the map, but I sincerely believe that I can make a change,” said Rasool. “Together we are a continent, can we not make a change?”

Shilda Cardoso, a fellow who works to find renewable energy solutions for the oil industry in his home country of Angola, was inspired by his colleagues.

“It is amazing how many brilliant minds our motherland Africa has,” Cardoso said.

Over the course of the program, each of the fellows developed an Ignite talk — an up to five-minute presentation meant to inspire — discussing an issue they felt most important to themselves and their countries. The talks focused on themes of equality, ethics or opportunity.

Some of the topics included education, water resources, elephant preservation and climate change.

“During the presentations, the passion they showed was amazing,” said Jeff Auger, a UMaine graduate student and program coordinator for the institute. “I learned so much from them that day. I saw the leaders they were and how they were going to use what they learned at UMaine in their home countries to make change.”

One of the Ignite talks was chosen to be presented in Washington D.C., alongside other talks selected from each of the 36 other host universities.

Rassool was selected to share her talk on the uncertain future of her island home in the face of climate change and rising sea level.

In a speech at the closing ceremony of the institute, Mandela fellow Denis Munuve, from Kenya, challenged the university to look for — and explore — more ways to collaborate with other universities and institutions in Africa. Manuve encouraged young American leaders to visit Africa, a place he calls “the next frontier for growth” to build partnerships that can effect positive change across the continent.

Following their six-week stay at UMaine, the cohort was invited to Washington D.C., to join the rest of the Mandela Washington Fellows for the Mandela Washington Fellowship Presidential Summit.

The three-day event marked the culmination of the program and featured a town hall with President Barack Obama. During his address to all 1,000 Mandela Fellows and representatives from host institutions, he recognized the brave few who tried the lobster ice cream in Bar Harbor.

“So you’ve got a taste of America, which, for some of you, apparently included something called lobster ice cream, which I’ve never tasted myself,” President Obama remarked. “But I have to admit, it sounds terrible. But that’s okay. You were very brave.”

In his address, President Obama stressed that the answers to the issues facing Africa are in the hearts and minds of the young African leaders the Mandela Washington Fellows represent.

“Part of the reason why I love this program is this isn’t a matter of what America is doing for you, this is us being partners, but mainly seeing what you can do yourselves to change, transform, and build your countries,” said President Obama. “At the end of the day, your vision will have to be won by you and by your fellow countrymen and women.”