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Progress Watch

Back to school: From rural Africa to the Ivy League

The United States Achievers Program provides funding and moral support for promising but disadvantaged students from 13 countries on four continents to pursue their educational goals.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / September 2, 2012

Students squeeze at a desk and listen during a lesson at Nalepo Primary School, south of Kenya's capital Nairobi, June 13, 2012. Academically promising students from Africa and elsewhere are scouted by a US program that connects them with opportunities to study at elite American colleges.

Noor Khamis/REUTERS

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In early 2008, Joshua Foromera was a talented Zimbabwean high school graduate living as a refugee in South Africa. He fled Zimbabwe because of political and economic collapse, seeking higher education opportunities.

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Today, Mr. Foromera is a biology and chemistry major at Duke University in North Carolina, following his dream of finding a safer, more effective treatment for the virus linked to AIDS.

Good grades and standardized test scores got Foromera, a graduate of a rural Zimbabwean public school, into Duke. But a small public-private partnership between US universities and the United States government helped him navigate the unfamiliar process of taking American-style tests, filling out college applications, seeking financial aid, and finally, applying for US student visas. The program, called the United States Achievers Program (USAP), aims to help promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds to further their education in the United States, and then return to their home countries to make a difference.

Joshua Foromera is just one of hundreds of foreign students with modest incomes attending university in the United States, thanks to private scholarships, enthusiastic volunteers, and the relatively small $12 million USAP program run out of US embassies in 13 countries on four different continents.

At a time when the US’s strategic advantage in higher education is being tested, and global talent moves to emerging economic powers such as India and China, programs like USAP help ensure that America’s colleges and universities still draw in the lion’s share of academic talent, and contribute to the economic boost higher education brings to the US economy.

“The primary goal for what we do and why we do it is to cultivate relationships with future leaders around the world,” says Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs, including USAP, the Fulbright program, and other scholarships.

“With US Achievers Program, we are trying to tap into the underserved students, to give opportunities of an educational experience to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it.”

'Tell us your budget'

Foromera, now a college senior, just finished a summer research internship with Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital’s AIDS research center, working to find specific enzymes to target in the latest generation of AIDS drugs. But if he hadn’t heard about education opportunities in the states, he would still be a refugee in South Africa, unable to afford higher education there, he says.

“I didn’t have a cent,” Foromera says. “When I applied for Duke, they knew I would need money for everything, but they said, ‘tell us your budget.’”

In total, US scholarship programs have educated some 310,000 Fulbright students (192,800 of them from foreign countries), and a large number of these have gone on to important careers. “Not only do we help people to go back to serve their countries, we help them to become leaders," says Ms. Curtis. "Three hundred and fifty Fulbright alumni have gone on to become heads of state, 16 have become Nobel laureates, and the US Achievers Program now makes this possible for those of limited means.”

There is another advantage. Congressional studies have found that the $12 million spent for international scholarships through USAP’s parent organization, Education USA, brings in some $21 billion to the US economy each year, generating new business ideas, innovations, and economic activity.

America 'is a meritocracy'

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