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.

Noor Khamis/REUTERS
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.
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Schoolchildren carry bottles of water to use to water plants and vegetables, at a primary school on the outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe Aug. 2.

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.

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'

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.

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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