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Seeds for change: Alumni find solutions to local challenges.

Upon returning home from her exchange program on communications and journalism, Inga Springe, a Latvian alumna of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program, worked to improve local journalists' tools and training for investigative reporting. Drawing on her U.S. experience, she established the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism (Re:Baltica), the first cross-national and nonprofit investigative journalism organization in the Baltics. Started with seed funding from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' (ECA) Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF), the now-self-sustaining organization has covered hard-hitting issues, including fraudulent tax schemes, shadowy donors to Baltic political parties and social inequality in Latvia. By equipping journalists with investigative reporting tools, the alumna made a concrete contribution toward the development of an objective, independent and professional media in her country.

The program is just one example of the successes arising out of the annual AEIF competition, which will launch this spring on alumni. state.gov/aeif. Through the competition, thousands of alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchanges, such as the Fulbright program or the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), have proposed solutions to pressing challenges. AEIF projects demonstrate the outstanding multiplier effect on the initial investment in exchange programs. Additionally, the competition is another tool for U.S. missions to continue their engagement with alumni and advance their goals and initiatives. Annually, alumni submit an average of 900 AEIF project proposals, making the competition one of ECA's most successful outreach initiatives.

Working in small teams, alumni submit project proposals with budgets of up to $25,000. Projects have focused on increasing access to education, empowering women and girls, and promoting civic participation. Often, they involve trainings, awareness campaigns, and leadership and empowerment initiatives.

Exchange alumni regularly propose and implement projects that promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers for underserved youth. Fulbright alumni from Paraguay created Techauka, a series of science fairs across the country that reached more than 26,000 elementary and high school students and teachers. Seventy alumni volunteered at the fairs, and 90 public and private organizations provided in-kind donations and expertise in STEM.

Similarly, in Tunisia, through the Young Tunisian Coders Academy (YTCA) program, a team of alumni is training Tunisian students, ages 10-15, in coding and other programming skills that can be used to produce mobile applications, games and software. In March, the team ended the 2016 program with a national competition in Scratch computer programming.

Addressing inequality is a common priority in many proposals. For example, alumni who learned about the Montgomery bus boycotts while on exchanges in Alabama proposed projects to address diversity and inclusion in their community. In another project, in one of Tajikistan's poorest and most conservative areas, IVLP alumni created five girls' clubs that serve more than 300 girls and offer workshops on such areas as girls in sports, women's rights and domestic violence. The girls gather every Saturday for discussions on such topics as gender equality and volunteerism, and also learn computer skills and public speaking. In July, the girls' clubs gathered for a weeklong summer camp geared to developing confident girls who are engaged in their community. (While most local American Corner visitors used to be boys, now girls make up the majority, thanks to that project.)

Similarly, in 2015 a team of seven Cameroonian alumni of the IVLP, Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF) and TechWomen program received AEIF funding for their Creative Arts for Girls Empowerment project. The project uses debates, dramas and songs to raise awareness of school-related gender based violence and its effects on girls' education and socioeconomic advancement. In the spring of 2016, the project's team partnered with a local nonprofit (founded by a 2014 MWF alumna) to write and direct the play "Of Girls Abused." The show has been performed for more than 4,000 youth, parents, teachers and community leaders, with performances followed by moderated dialogue on strategies for building safe schools and communities where everyone, especially girls, can thrive.

Fulbright alumni in Mexico have contributed to leadership initiatives by empowering local students from indigenous backgrounds. With AEIF seed funding, they started the Leadership Program for Indigenous Youth at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla. The now-self-sustaining program builds students' confidence and networking and leadership skills, furthering a mission goal of promoting social inclusion of marginalized groups. The program now reaches hundreds of indigenous students, and its graduates advocate for indigenous people's rights, start businesses and pursue higher education.

AEIF projects also advocate for people with disabilities. For instance, after years of communist rule in Mongolia, most buildings and roads in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, don't meet the needs of those using wheelchairs. Responding, an alumni team created a user-friendly mapping tool for wheelchair users, using an existing open source map (Wheelmap.org). That website provides information in Mongolian on the wheelchair accessibility of entrances, elevators and bathrooms of buildings in the city's center, including public buildings and curbs at intersections in central Ulaanbaatar.

Meanwhile, in Armenia, an AEIF team organized a flash mob brought together by social media to support people with disabilities; the event showcased 80 dancers of all abilities, performing with professional dancers to Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers." To reach a broader audience, that project will conclude with a classical performance and documentary on animal therapy.

The AEIF projects also promote change through communication and understanding, such as by working with students and youth to find peaceful approaches to groups with differing perspectives. For instance, Egyptian alumni hosted a week-long training camp for nearly 100 students, selected from almost 400 applications from 10 cities, to help the students build communication skills and find more effective and constructive ways to discuss their varying viewpoints through debating. Another example is the 2014 Expanding INSIGHTS project in Jamaica, which taught children strategies to solve dilemmas and accept differences. The program also gave teachers tools to increase positive behavior, improving the students' learning experiences. It has since been expanded to include an official INSIGHTS center at the University of the West Indies, Mona, reaching 266 more children.

Since its inception in 2011, AEIF has funded more than 300 projects and become the go-to way for exchange alumni to better their communities. Responding to the competition's predetermined policy themes, alumni craft proposals reflecting their communities' needs, seeking lasting change. Often projects reach areas where embassy officials cannot travel; always, they draw on skills and knowledge alumni gained in the United States and build on the ECA investment to reach hundreds in their communities. From improving press freedom to combatting genderbased violence and promoting sustainable development, the projects are making a difference around the world.

By Phoenix Ricks, alumni outreach specialist, and Sophia Stergiou, regional alumni coordinator for the western hemisphere, Office of Alumni Affairs, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
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Author:Ricks, Phoenix
Publication:State Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2017
Words:1123
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