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Investing in the next generation of US leaders: The importance of overseas scholarships

 

By Doug Cutchins, Robert Graalman, Suzanne McCray, Jane Morris, Beth Powers, and Paula Warrick

 

Providing international opportunities for students increases their understanding of key economic, social, and political issues, but as Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lamented, only 1 percent of US students study abroad.  She stressed that "to remain the leader in this ever-changing world, we have to push ourselves not just to think globally, but to get out there and study globally as well."   Former Harvard president Derek Bok in his book Our Underachieving Colleges stresses that study abroad lasting more than a semester is central to "a greater realism about other societies and an abiding sense of their complexity and the hazards of easy generalizations." Preparing future leaders with an understanding of global complexities is critically important for the United States, and the loss of an important and successful program like the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, one of the most prestigious in this country, affects more than just those students who might benefit.  The loss of informed, culturally sensitive leadership affects us all.

The scholarship-named for the venerated former Senator from Maine who played such a pivotal role in the peace process in Northern Ireland-was created in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement.  This scholarship has for 13 years allowed the future leaders of the United States to discover not only the island of Ireland, but the wider world beyond it.  Budget cuts are a difficult reality, and painful decisions must be made, but a program such as the Mitchell reaps benefits far beyond its very small budget of less than $500,000 annually (which is .08 percent of the budget of the relevant State Department bureau, Educational and Cultural Affairs).

Each year, a dozen outstanding students - chosen from top programs across the country - receive a fully funded year of graduate study that many of them could not otherwise afford. Because one of the primary selection criteria of the Mitchell is a record of service, many of these young people naturally go on to careers in public service. They work in fields ranging from development to education to global health. They speak languages ranging from Wolof to Urdu to Arabic to German to Hebrew to Spanish. They work in places as varied as Malawi and Colorado, Egypt and New York, Honduras and Arkansas. Their employers are local and national governments, international organizations, small NGOs and large nonprofits. They are Republicans and Democrats, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, from small US towns and large US cities. They are students at some of our most renowned institutions of higher education and some of the smaller, lesser-known gems in our country's educational system.

If funding for the Mitchell Scholarship Program is cut, this would be both a great loss in terms of the development of the next generation of American leaders and a serious blow to the aims of higher education. For many years, major national and international scholarships such as the Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Gates, Fulbright, and others have given U.S. students a chance to understand the world while serving as ambassadors for our country. Elliot Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust, noted in a just-published article in the Atlantic about US students who study overseas: "These young Americans usually return with an openness about the world that many of their parents lack. No less patriotic than when they left, they see how curiosity about other ways to do things can only make us a stronger country."

The Mitchell provides opportunities to a diverse group of students, who have already demonstrated that they will do exceptional work in a variety of fields.   Its thriving alumni program assists scholars with the next steps of their careers, providing important connections across continents.   Mitchell Scholars study some of the world's knottiest problems while living on an island that is finally at peace. Ireland's tradition of strong ties to the developing world allows Americans to engage with students from the many countries who study in Ireland, including many from China and the Gulf region.

As fellowship advisors, we have personal experiences with Mitchell Scholars from our own states and regions, and we know very well what a difference the Mitchell has made in their lives.  Our Mitchells are now working in areas as diverse as energy policy, homelessness, human rights, and city government.  These young people are prepared to tackle the weighty contemporary issues facing our country and our world.  We encourage the State Department and Congress to reconsider its decision and fund the Mitchell Scholarship, a small but excellent investment in our future leaders.

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Doug Cutchins (Grinnell College) is the current president of the National Association of Fellowship Advisors (NAFA). This essay was co-written by all five NAFA past presidents: Robert Graalman (Oklahoma State University); Suzanne McCray (University of Arkansas); Jane Morris (Villanova University); Beth Powers (University of Illinois at Chicago), and Paula Warrick (American University).