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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.

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The achievers program had humble beginnings, and was the brainchild of an employee at the US Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe. As an academic adviser on the embassy staff, Rebecca Zeigler-Mano noticed one common feature of all the prospective students coming to her office. They were almost all wealthy and well-connected.

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So in 1999, she started visiting schools outside of the capital city, first in modest towns, and finally into rural areas, asking school principals to keep their eyes out for promising students who might benefit from higher education. Money wasn’t an issue, she assured the educators. Private universities, particularly rich institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, have scholarship funds to meet the needs of those with talent but no money.

“I have this belief about America: It is a meritocracy,” says Ms. Zeigler-Man, talking by telephone from Harare. “If you are a talented and bright student, let me handle the fundraising, and help to prepare those students for SAT tests, and if you don’t have financial capabilities yourself, then let’s still go for it.”

Finding scholarships for talented students was the least of Zeigler-Mano’s problems, she soon found. Many of these students, even those who had scored best in their class, had never taken standardized tests before. Some were unable to pay even the standard fees for an SAT test. Most didn’t have passports. Few could imagine affording a plane ticket. Zeigler-Mano realized that getting these students into US colleges would require individualized help for each student, and a lot of patience.

Zeigler-Mano’s can-do spirit – as well as the efforts of dozens of USAP volunteers around the world – is an important source of support for the hundreds of USAP students now attending US-based universities.

Jonah Kadoko, a Zimbabwean student in mechanical engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. says that Zeigler-Mano’s efforts on his behalf helped him to do things he could never do in Zimbabwe, gave him the “opportunity to talk with some of the greatest minds in the world,” and allowed him to do extensive research in both solar energy and in global positioning system technology.

Yemurai Mangwendeza, a medical student from Harare turned African and gender-studies double major at Yale, remembers the day Zeigler-Mano handed her an alphabetical listing of 4,000 US universities and colleges and asked young Yemurai to circle the colleges that interested her.

After a half hour, Ms. Mangwendeza handed the book back. She had found dozens of colleges, but never got past the letter “A.” “Mai Mano told me, ‘you’re selling yourself short. Why not look at Smith and Yale,’” Mangwendeza recalls with a laugh. Mai Mano, a term of endearment meaning “Mother Mano,” is a nickname many of Zeigler-Mano’s students call her.

Months later, Mai Mano called Mangwendeza. “I have news for you, you’re going to Yale.” Mangwendeza did what one would do in such a situation: “I screamed.”

Simply getting to college, however, was only the beginning of the challenges, says Mangwendeza.

Being a foreign student in America can be an isolating experience. Fellow Zimbabweans who come from richer families don’t understand the financial challenges faced by their poorer countrymen, she says, and even poor or middle class African American students often don’t understand the cultural differences that an African student faces in American universities.

But the USAP program, by bringing together fellow scholarship students from time to time, tries to create a sense of community that helps students like Mangwendeza survive.

“What I love about USAP is: community, community, community,” Mangwendeza says.

“There are other Zimbabweans at Yale, but there is something special about USAP people. When you tell them your story, they understand. When talking of the concept of sending money home to help send your siblings to school, they understand.”

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