A cohort of 30 young leaders from Africa will take part in public management and leadership development through Texas Tech this summer.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the U.S. government's Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). The Mandela Fellowship has since brought 4,400 young leaders from countries across Sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S. for leadership training.
The fellowship consists of a six-week leadership institute where fellows can choose from tracks in business, civic engagement or public management. Texas Tech University offers the public management track. After six weeks at various academic institutions, fellows traditionally attend a summit in Washington, D.C. However, this year the fellowship experience will be virtual. The fellows participating this year were accepted in 2020, but the program was put on hold due to COVID-19.
“We've had to be very creative to turn this experience into a virtually engaging one,” said Michael Johnson, assistant director of international academic partnerships for Texas Tech's Office of International Affairs (OIA).
The program is running in a virtual format from now through July 30.
This will be Texas Tech's third year as a host institution for the fellowship, which is highly competitive, both for applicants and hosts.
“Statistically, it is harder to be accepted into this fellowship than an Ivy League university,” Johnson said.
The fellows chosen are the brightest and most tenacious young leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these men and women either run their own business or lead a nonprofit. This year, 49 countries will be represented, with fellows ranging from 25-35 years old.
“Texas Tech University is proud to be a third-time host of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program, which shares our goal of promoting thoughtful global citizenship,” said Sukant Misra, vice provost for international affairs at OIA.
“We look forward to working with and learning from these inspiring young leaders, as we have done in previous years. Even though we are virtual this year, we will continue to offer leadership training, networking, mentoring and professional development. We invite all the participants to visit our campus when it is safe to do so,” Misra said.
Not only is Texas Tech a host university; it also has been recognized as a best practice institution by the U.S. Department of State. Texas Tech introduced mental health counseling as part of the experience for the international fellows – an effort spearheaded by OIA in partnership with Ian Lertora, an assistant professor of counselor education in Texas Tech's College of Education.
“In the past, the fellows assigned to Texas Tech would live on campus for the entire six weeks of the program,” Lertora said. “They leave their homes for two whole months. Keep in mind these are professionals, not students. They are lawyers, doctors, policymakers and financiers. They have families of their own they leave behind. This comes with a lot of culture shock, transition shock, acculturative stress and other various ups and downs that come with being thousands of miles from home.
“My role in the past years of hosting these fellows has been supporting their mental health during their time here, but this year will be different. Since the fellows are not physically on campus, they will not experience these transitional issues. This year, I have shifted focus to being a conduit for connection between the fellows so they can develop further cohesion and reach the goals they have for their respective countries as well as the continent of Africa as a whole.”
That is not the only component of the fellowship that has had to change. Due to the challenge of going virtual, the creativity of the Texas Tech host team has been challenged like never before.
The fellowship consists not only of academic and leadership lectures, but also cultural connections, networking, community service and one-on-one coaching – all of which had to transfer seamlessly to an online format.
“The fellows are required to complete three hours of cultural connections this year,” Johnson said.
Johnson's team got to work filming iconic West Texas experiences.
“We often take fellows up to Palo Duro Canyon State Park to see the musical ‘TEXAS' while they're here,” Johnson said. “This year, we took cameras up and got permission to film the production. We also are planning to strap a GoPro camera to one of our staffers and have her attend the Fourth on Broadway festival so our fellows can view this experience.”
Other experiences will include a livestreamed tour of the National Ranching Heritage Center as well as connections and coaching from leaders across Texas Tech and the city of Lubbock.
One of the most challenging aspects of moving the program online was creating an engaging and relevant community service opportunity.
“This year, we are coordinating with the University of Texas cohort by having fellows complete a joint social media campaign that creates donations and awareness for food scarcity and nutrition issues throughout both Texas and Africa,” Johnson said. “This will be a community service opportunity as well as a networking opportunity with their peers.”
Every virtual experience is required to be in a 60-minute format. Internet access differs from country to country, so program directors must be cognizant of not uploading content that will be difficult to buffer.
“We've contracted with Texas Tech's Online and Distance Programs department to help us edit and publish accessible content for the fellows,” Johnson added.
“We're reflecting very intentionally on what to omit and what to add-in, so the experience is the best virtual program it can be,” Johnson said.
That said, the staff is excited and hopeful to see fellows on campus next year.
While it might be easy to hone these virtual skills and then move on, the OIA isn't dismissing this experience so quickly. Together with Texas Tech Study Abroad, the staff is assessing how they can take the skills learned through this fellowship and apply them to serve Texas Tech students year-round.
“We want study abroad to be the first option students look at when seeking an international experience,” Johnson said. “There is nothing that can quite replace it. However, we also know it's not realistic for everyone. Some students cannot travel, or it's simply not in their budget. That said, our office is learning a lot from the Mandela Fellowship this year. In creating this virtual experience, we believe we're developing new ways to give Texas Tech students future cultural opportunities in ways we wouldn't necessarily have thought of before.”
This year's Mandela Fellowship format has certainly displayed the creativity and tenacity of the Red Raider community as a whole. More than anything, though, it has shown the passion Texas Tech faculty and staff have for serving students. And that passion is not one-sided.
“The positivity of the Mandela Fellows is felt throughout the entire Lubbock community,” Lertora said. “We constantly hear praise from everyone who comes into contact with them. When the fellows leave Texas Tech, they leave as proud members of the Red Raider family.”
Even though the fellows will not be on campus this year, they will forever be a part of this community.