On July 16, 2020, Rutgers Global hosted the first-ever Rutgers University Mandela Washington Fellowship Virtual Reunion. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF)—a flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI)—empowers young African leaders through academic coursework, leadership training, mentoring, networking, professional opportunities, and local community engagement.
Rutgers has hosted cohorts of Mandela Washington Fellows since the inception of the program in 2014, and is one of the few select universities to host two institutes—one for Civic Engagement and one for Leadership in Business—since 2016. There are now 250 Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni of the Rutgers Programs, representing a significant number of Fellows who are engaging in transformational work on the continent. This virtual reunion offered Rutgers Fellows the opportunity to reconnect, share information and updates, and make new connections.
The program began with remarks from new Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway, who noted: “The Mandela Washington Fellowships are so important because they make this large and fractured world seem more accessible and manageable, and they create the opportunity for repair. And this is a moment when we need repair.” In addition to President Holloway, the Fellows heard from Eric Garfunkel, Vice President for Global Affairs and the head of Rutgers Global; Ousseina Alidou, professor of linguistics and African Studies, who leads the MWF Civic Engagement Institute; Kevin Lyons, professor of professional practice at Rutgers Business School and the head of the MWF Leadership in Business Institute; and H.E. Abena Busia, currently Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil, on leave from her position as professor of English literature at Rutgers, among other speakers. (View a recording of the virtual reunion here.)
“You have populated every space of New Jersey with your mark of leadership,” Professor Alidou said. “You bring the best of Africa through the work you are doing, and you are the ambassadors through the work you do for the community. You are bringing it to the world. We are really grateful to Rutgers University for putting the resources to allow Rutgers Global and Rutgers Center for African Studies to join this initiative.”
After the plenary presentation, Fellows were encouraged to attend break-out meetings on various topics, including peacebuilding, public health, sustainability, renewable energy, and women’s rights.
Greg Costalas, Assistant Director of Programs at Rutgers Global, who helped to plan the event and coordinates the Civic Engagement Institute with Professor Alidou, said, “We envisioned this online event as a true reunion in that we wanted to connect Fellows with Fellows; both Fellows from the same year who hadn’t connected since Rutgers, as well as Fellows from different years and institutes who were doing similar work.”
Johanna Bernstein, Assistant Dean for Global Programs at Rutgers Global, who works with Professor Lyons on the Leadership in Business Institute, echoed the sentiment and added, “The Fellows are doing such transformative work on the continent and we wanted to provide a forum for them to share their success stories and network. We were so pleased that more than 100 Fellows participated in the virtual reunion.”
There are many examples of the impactful work of the Rutgers University Mandela Washington Fellows. For instance, Babatunde Okunlola, who participated in the Civic Engagement Institute in 2019, has worked to counter disinformation about COVID-19 through his radio station in Nigeria.
“Initially, the coronavirus struck suddenly and nobody understood it. It gradually made its way down to African nations, and there was a lot of speculation,” Okunlola explained. “My community where I work…[has] a diverse group of people. You’ve got different languages spoken, so it makes an already problematic situation more complex in terms of the communication. I didn’t think there was enough being done in terms of enlightening the people. I work as the head of programs at my radio station here. We started rolling out PSAs. There is a limit to the reach of the radio station itself. I remembered something particularly I learned with Dr. Quincy that had to do a lot with collaboration. We had to get in touch with two other radio stations, and we had to be really strategic about it. Along the way I was able to get a grant as well, which helped in the process of producing more messages. It turned out to be a reliable platform for changing the narrative when it comes to misinformation. It also got the government to be more accountable to the people and transparent.”
“We are so proud of the work of our Mandela Washington Fellows and truly consider them to be part of the Rutgers Family,” said Eric Garfunkel. “One Fellow is now a PhD student here at Rutgers. Another Fellow participated in Rutgers Giving Day this year.”
He added: “In the midst of this turbulent and ever-changing geo-political landscape where we are not only coming to terms with the ongoing impact of COVID-19, but also attempting to navigate our role as a leading university, we remain committed to our mission to educate and improve the lives of our community both locally and globally. Our international students—including our Mandela Washington Fellows—are a critical part of that mission.”
Rutgers University is already looking ahead—and forward—to the summer of 2021 when we will again host two Institutes.
For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Rutgers, please visit this page.