This story was initially published in VT News at this link.

Networking is a constant fixture on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., but this summer a group of honorary Hokies have been making introductions with a unique goal in mind.

Virginia Tech cohort members of the Mandela Washington Fellows, hosted by the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), spent six weeks in the National Capital Region connecting not only with American policymakers, business leaders, and public officials – but also with their counterparts from across Africa.

These 25 young leaders, who represented 13 African countries, were selected for the program because of their professional excellence and dedication to public service. They belong to a larger group of 700 Mandela Washington Fellows hosted by 27 educational institutions throughout the United States, where they studied business, civic engagement, or public management.

During their six weeks on campus, fellows also shared best practices, developed professional contacts, and enriched local communities through service activities. The fellowship program, founded in 2014 and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative.

Many fellows first became interested in the program as a way to enrich their professional and social contributions back home, but several members of the Virginia Tech cohort are also leaving with a deeper sense of human connection.

“I joined the Mandela program to learn how food security is addressed here, and I was also drawn to the multiculturalism and diversity of the United States,” said Ndeye Mossane Diébaté, a lab technician and quality manager from Senegal. “But for me, the program was more than a professional experience. It was also an extraordinary human experience. I met people who were not only really competent in their work but also willing to share their ideas, which let me know they were more than what I expected from their business cards.”

Diébaté ultimately hopes to create a nutritious grain that can be given to children who are at risk for malnutrition in her home country. She said she greatly benefited from the program’s leadership training and now “knows which doors to knock on.”

It’s that desire to serve in the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) – combined with SPIA’s long tradition of academic and cultural exchange – that made the Mandela Washington Fellows program such a natural fit for Virginia Tech. Since the program started in late June, the fellows have contributed more than 375 hours of community service to the City of Alexandria, an accomplishment for which Mayor Justin Wilson awarded each of them the status of honorary citizen.

These community service activities included food distribution for low-income residents, organizing and sorting donations for a pet shelter, and a waterfront cleanup project for Alexandria’s parks and recreation division.

In addition to city leadership, the fellows visited with delegations from Capitol Hill, the White House’s Executive Office Building, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and several chambers of commerce. They also met with senators, ambassadors, business representatives, and nonprofit leaders, and they received a letter of welcome from President Trump.

At the conclusion of their leadership institute, members of the Virginia Tech cohort joined other program fellows in Washington, D.C., for the sixth annual Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit. There the fellows took part in networking and panel discussions with each other and with U.S. leaders.

These meetings provided an important opportunity for the fellows to recognize that challenges in government and civil leadership are universal, said Rosa Castillo Krewson, SPIA’s academic director for the 2019 Mandela Institute.

“One of the greatest outcomes of this program is that young African leaders learned that the United States also faces challenges similar to those on the African continent,” said Krewson. “They learned about the financial crisis and the factors that led to it, the challenges of poor management in a public office, and the checks and balances that need to be put in place to mitigate such situations from reoccurring. By building a strong community of public managers, we can develop a system beyond boundaries and beyond typical governance.”

Krewson added that SPIA faculty, students, and staff also benefited tremendously from the opportunity to engage with the fellows. “We owe them a great deal of gratitude for what they taught us about their cultures and challenges,” she said.

Many fellows echoed the program’s positive atmosphere of fellowship and cultural exchange as an affirmation of strength, potential, and collective knowledge between the African continent and the United States.

“For me, the program means hope,” said Viviane Laure Mamno Wafo, a university researcher in applied and gender economics from Dakar. “Hope that there is a great future for Africa when we invest in youth. I’m taking home a new culture of leadership and volunteering, two keys to achieving excellence.”