"It's like being thrown in the washing machine and emerging all cleaned out."
Susan Baragwanath was a schoolteacher in New Zealand when she was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship in 1994. On Wednesday, she was attending a fellows meeting in Philadelphia, and trying to describe what it's like to be part of the august program, which brings in leaders from abroad and sends U.S. fellows all over the world. Baragwanath was there also to receive a distinguished fellow award, for creating a network of schools to serve underage mothers in New Zealand.
On Wednesday, 23 international fellows presented their projects. On Thursday, retired Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the organization, was to have a dialogue with fellows, attended by two dozen schoolchildren from the Philadelphia Military Academy and Philadelphia Academies. Thursday night at the awards banquet, Powell was to award a distinguished service award to the International Rescue Committee.
"The IRC is doing distinguished work around the world," Powell said by phone. "A great burden is being placed on them, in Yemen, in Nigeria, you name it, with the political situation of refugees." He said he also looked forward to talking with the schoolkids: "I learn more from them than they do from me."
Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and now chair of the program's board of trustees, had a group of the fellows out to her farm Sunday. "I look forward to what the fellows have to say about their experience," she said. "I like to hear them say, 'This is what I learned, this is what I can take back to my country and make a difference.' "
The Eisenhower Fellowships program - its stated objective is "to foster international understanding and leadership through the exchange of information, ideas and perspectives among leaders throughout the world" - began as a birthday gift to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.
Since then, the program has sponsored more than 2,100 fellows from 111 countries. The fellowships bring international leaders here, subsidizing them to travel and see people and programs that may help them design their own projects back home. The program also sends U.S. fellows abroad.
Fabric of the city
"Its genesis is definitely a Philadelphia story," said George de Lama, president of the Eisenhower Fellowships. Cofounders included newspaper mogul Walter Annenberg, as well as Thomas B. McCabe, Swarthmore grad and then-CEO of Scott Paper, and Philly ad exec Ward Wheelock, whose son Keith is a longtime trustee and unofficial historian of the group.
"The Eisenhower Fellowships are woven into the fabric of this city," de Lama said. Prominent Philadelphia Eisenhower Fellows include Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project H.O.M.E.; Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program; former school board member Pedro Ramos; Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams; and Cynthia Figueroa, president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos.
Figueroa, who traveled to Chile and Argentina as a 2010 fellow, said by e-mail that the program "instilled tremendous confidence in me as a woman and as a leader to voice my career goals and seize opportunities available to me." She added that "it helped me define my career goals" and provided insights and contacts she uses regularly in her work.
Sister Mary Scullion of Project H.O.M.E. said that the fellowship "literally opened the windows to the world and provided a network of leaders from around the world who deeply believe in peace and social justice."
On Wednesday, fellow after fellow outlined ambitious schemes designed to change things, to address, directly and concretely, issues crying out for solutions. Mezuo Nwuneli of Nigeria, a capital funds director, spoke of ways to improve agriculture in Nigeria. Tawan Dheva-Aksorn, CEO of a for-profit education company in Thailand, traced guidelines for bringing high-quality education to the children of his country. Think-tank director Shaurya Doval of India spoke of ways think tanks in his country can have more impact.
But it was Ngozi Ifeoma Malo, senior technical adviser to Nigeria's minister of power, who brought tears. She also demonstrated the surprising things fellows learn about the world, and why the fellowships are based on the personal.
"My experience shows that energy is connected to everything, even security," Malo said. When 300 young women were kidnapped in April 2014 from the rural town of Chibok, some of those who escaped told Malo that "it would have been helpful if we had had electricity when the terrorists came." Lack of electric lighting allowed the terrorists to pretend to be troops who can come to protect the girls.
"That moment of discomfort motivated me to apply for a fellowship," Malo said later. "It also made me realize I had to quit my job and start an accelerator to develop ways to deliver off-grid power to rural areas. Also, I became a mother nine months ago, and I began to imagine my daughter having to go through something like the Chibok girls went through - and all because there was no electricity."
Fellows are exceptional people. People like Nathan Piranavan Sivagananathan, who walked south to north across Sri Lanka to raise $2.6 million to start a cancer hospital. (He, too, was motivated by the personal, losing a sister to cancer.) People like Alfonso Peró, a journalist from Chile who said: "We are at a great moment. Journalism will survive, as we adapt and find a business model. There's plenty of room. This is a moment when we can have impact."
"Being among people this engaged in being in the world, in addressing problems of this magnitude," said Sanchia Jacobs, head of global partnerships and strategy for Auckland, New Zealand, "it's a cauldron of energy. It makes you feel the responsibility - and the capability - to make changes that will have impact."