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Mandela Washington Fellowship Journey: A Moment of Reflection


By Mustapha Gwary

When I first received information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship through the Young African Leaders Initiative in November 2013, I thought applying for the program was not worth my time. Only 500 young Africans are selected for the Fellowship, and I assumed thousands would apply. In Nigeria alone, there are far more than 500 qualified applicants. I thought about the odds of me making the cut, and thoughts of doubt enveloped my mind. Nonetheless, I applied. During my interview I discovered that nearly 50,000 sub-Saharan Africans applied for the Fellowship and over 15,000 of the candidates were from Nigeria. Despite my initial doubts, I am thankful to be one of the selected candidates to participate in the inaugural class of Fellows. With excitement, I embarked upon a three-part journey to Miami, Florida; Washington D.C.; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

My adventure started at Florida International University where I participated in a six-week intensive academic course focused on public management.  Throughout the course I learned about governance, policy formulation, strategic planning, ethics and public trust, transparency and accountability, and public-private partnership in governance while I refined my leadership skills. The highlight of my experience in Miami was the friendships I created with the 24 dynamic young Africans in the program. Their exceptional accomplishments in their home countries moved and motivated me to do more to make my country a better place. One colleague, Eric Ngondi from Kenya, was simply exceptional. After losing both eyes in a robbery attack, he lost his job, but nevertheless remained relentless and steadfast, ultimately establishing his own company and becoming an advocate for the disabled.

At the end of July, all 500 Fellows who were spread across the nation at 1 of 20 universities, congregated together for the first time at the Presidential Summit in Washington D. C.  The moment we met President Obama was electrifying while the entire hall went into a frenzy. The Summit allowed me to build new partnerships and friendships and continue to develop my professional network.  At the Summit, there were panel discussions, breakout sessions, and I also had the opportunity to meet with President Obama, Michelle Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sector.

I arrived in Colorado Springs after dark, and my first impression of it was of a gothic city. I was struck by the old buildings, the whistling of the chill wind, and the silence engulfing the night. Throughout my time here, I have come to know Colorado Springs as a beautiful city filled with warm and welcoming people. It is by far my favorite city I have visited in the U.S. Working at El Pomar Foundation has been an incredible learning experience, providing me with many opportunities and platforms to learn and build upon my knowledge of how nonprofit organizations operate. The Emerging Leaders Development Program (Leadership Plenty) sessions, nonprofit management classes, grant writing workshops, and the Investment Challenge classes have had a remarkable impact on me. The people I have met through my time at El Pomar have been incredible, and the relationships will last far into the future. I cannot quantify what I have learned during my time at El Pomar, and I will eternally remain grateful for this opportunity.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know.”

This quote by Michel Legrand exemplifies my Mandela Washington Fellowship experience. It has been a humbling experience for me. Meeting the other fellows and learning about their work has been the highlight of my Mandela Washington Fellowship experience. I am looking forward to sharing and applying all the skills and knowledge I have acquired to my organization and several other organizations I intend to work with when I return home.