University of Arkansas Hosts Fellows of Young African Leaders Initiative

Fellows of the Young African Leaders Initiative gather with Chancellor G. David Gearhart on Monday for a group photo in Old Main at the University of Arkansas.
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Fellows of the Young African Leaders Initiative gather with Chancellor G. David Gearhart on Monday for a group photo in Old Main at the University of Arkansas.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – In spite of an unfortunate case of harassment involving a person not affiliated with the University of Arkansas, 25 of Africa’s most promising leaders are concluding a successful six-week academic institute on public management on the Fayetteville campus.

The University of Arkansas, in partnership with the Spring International Language Center and the Clinton School of Public Service — hosted Fellows of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. The Washington Fellowship is designed to challenge and inspire its members to affect positive change in their communities and comprised of 500 competitively selected participants in the Young African Leaders Initiative.

“I came here expecting to learn more about the United States than Africa, but it was actually the opposite,” said Ivan Collinson, a Fellow from Mozambique. “I feel more African after the program. I plan to take what I learned here and share it with others at home. I am working with another Fellow to develop a similar program in Mauritania. The program is great. I really enjoyed it.”

The Fellows at the University of Arkansas were selected from a pool of more than 50,000 applicants, and their backgrounds are as varied as the 18 different sub-Saharan African countries they represent. Participants included doctors, lawyers, government officials, journalists, educators and public servants with proven records of promoting innovation and positive change in their organizations, institutions or communities.

“These are outstanding leaders with amazing stories,” said Todd Shields, dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and principle investigator for the grant that brought the young leaders to campus. “While I’m teaching some of their classes, I’m learning just as much from them.”

One of the Fellows came to the university from Benin, where he works as a medical doctor and manages a regional AIDS control program that encompasses more than 100 facilities. Another is a member of the Tanzanian parliament who strives to provide scholarships for the youth in his country. One works for an organization in Ghana that recruits, educates and provides resources to teachers in remote areas of the country. A Fellow from Botswana is part of an organization that helps to improve women’s education in her country.

Leyah Bergman-Lanier, director of Spring International, interacted with the Fellows throughout their visit, and she is mindful of the role they will play in Africa’s future.

“They are very aware, very smart and very eager. They want to be able to make a difference,” she said. “I believe they recognize they hold the keys in many ways to the growth and development that will occur in the next generation in Africa.”

The Fellows were involved in a variety of activities during the six-week institute, including lectures, panel sessions, community service activities, meetings with elected officials, a visit to Little Rock and exploring Fayetteville and other local communities with host families.

“I hope they will be empowered to be change-agents, and they will look on this experience as an opportunity to become more aware of themselves as leaders and more aware of the responsibility that leadership holds,” Bergman-Lanier said.

The University of Arkansas was selected through a competitive process along with 19 other institutions to be a part of the Young African Leaders Initiative. Her past experiences working with African youth and her awareness of the resources available on campus prompted her to want Spring International to be involved with the program.

“The thought of working with these 25 sub-Saharan Africans, who were already leaders in their communities, was very exciting, and the expertise we have at the University of Arkansas in a number of the fields in which these professionals were looking for development made us a natural match,” said Bergman-Lanier, played a critical role in leading the effort to have the University of Arkansas selected.

The Washington Fellowship includes robust programming in Africa, including networking opportunities, continued professional development and access to seed funding. The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a U.S. government program that is administered by the nonprofit organization IREX.

Two of the Fellows described their experiences in the program in an interview for KUAF, the National Public Radio affiliate on campus. The story can be heard here.

Regrettably, some Fellows were awakened in the early hours of July 20 by a stranger outside Garland House, where they have been staying during the program. The report to the University of Arkansas Police Department cited harassment and criminal mischief. The police investigation is ongoing.

University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart, who met with the Fellows on Monday, said he is “appalled” by the report.

“We will not tolerate this unacceptable and unbelievable criminal activity,” Gearhart said. “When we learned of the incident, we immediately sent a team of campus leaders to the location of our guests to reassure them that they are safe and welcome in our community and on our campus. I met with our visiting Fellows because I wanted them to know what an honor it is to have them here and be their hosts. I hope our Fellows understand that the unfortunate actions of one individual are not reflective of our community and will not detract from their experience. Campus police are doing everything humanly possible to identify the perpetrator and we will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, agreed, saying, “I had the honor and privilege to speak to this extremely bright and engaging group of foreign scholars last Friday, and was extremely impressed by the vibrant and intellectual dialogue we shared about higher education that afternoon. I am disgusted to learn about this isolated incident and have full confidence officials at the University of Arkansas are doing everything in their power to gather the necessary information to help identify and prosecute this individual to the fullest extent of the law. It is my hope that these visiting scholars see this isolated incident for what it was, and that it is not in any way reflective of how honored we are to have them in our state and on our campuses.”

Although university officials believe this was an isolated incident of harassment by a single individual, it is not indicative of any larger issue. Even so, in order to ensure the comfort of the Fellows as they complete their stay, the university has implemented additional security measures specific to the location of the Fellows.


Laura Jacobs, associate vice chancellor
University Relations


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