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For six weeks, 25 young leaders from Africa lived and studied at University of Wisconsin-Stout, absorbing everything they could about business, entrepreneurship and American culture.
"It was a forward-thinking, positive experience," said Mark Fenton, an associate professor of business who led the Young African Leaders Initiative on campus.
Before the leaders headed back to Africa, they had one last stop. They spent the week of July 28 in Washington, D.C., with 475 other YALI participants who had been at similar institutes at 19 other campuses around the country.
It was a week to remember. The fellows, in addition to hearing speeches by President Obama, the first lady, secretary of state and other U.S. leaders, were reminded about the purpose of their visit to the U.S.
"The president focused on the future," Fenton said. "They are the future of Africa, and what's expected of them is significant."
One of the YALI fellows, Faith Mangope from South Africa, said the group is charged with changing the face of Africa. "By your work, all the world will know that Africa is no longer a sleeping giant but that indeed it is awake and that it is open for business," Mangope said.
A UW-Stout fellow, Hastings Mkandawire of Malawi, was singled out by Obama in his address at the start of a town hall-style event. Mkandawire is trying to improve access to electricity in rural Malawi. At his home, he builds generators from scrap metal and uses water power from streams to help farmers irrigate their crops and provide light in homes at night.
"Hastings, thank you," Obama said. "We want to help you power Africa."
Mkandawire was one of six UW-Stout fellows who each received a $25,000 grant from the U.S. African Development Fund to help finance their projects. The grants were awarded during the summit in Washington. A total of 36 grants were given out; 150 fellows applied.
Others at UW-Stout who received grants are Emmanuel Hamaro, of Tanzania ; James Mulbah, of Liberia; Mutoba Ngoma, of Zambia; Nomvula Mhambi, of Zimbabwe; and Ruka De-Liman, of Ghana.
Fenton, Provost Jackie Weissenburger and business department faculty member Scott Vaver accompanied the UW-Stout group to Washington. Fenton and Vaver along with the fellows from the Republic of South Africa also attended a reception at the South African embassy.
Feedback has been positive
UW-Stout is hoping to host the institute again next year and beyond, Fenton said. The State Department will assess first-year program results before inviting campuses and opening grant applications for next year.
Fenton believes the fellows' experience at UW-Stout was excellent. "All the feedback I've had was positive. They were quite impressed from day one," Fenton said, citing the faculty presenters, guest speakers, facilities, field trips and hospitality.
Weissenburger agreed. "Everything we heard is that the fellows are touting our program as one of the best," she said.
Weissenburger said Obama hopes to double the number of fellows to 1,000 in two years. "This is something near and dear to his heart. He's passionate and committed," said Weissenburger, who was part of a separate meeting with Obama and leaders from other host universities.
"These fellows clearly understand their role. The young people in Africa really want to turn things around — to fight corruption and champion women's rights," she said.
The fellows' individual relationships with UW-Stout hopefully will continue. The dean of the College of Management, Abel Adekola, met with each fellow before they left campus to ask how UW-Stout might help them move forward with their goals.
UW-Stout's myriad resources include the Discovery Center Fab Lab, which is a digital fabrication center connected to a worldwide network.
The 500 Washington fellows this year were chosen from 50,000 who applied. The name of the fellowship has been changed to the Mandela Washington Fellowship, in honor of Nelson Mandela, the late president of South Africa.
Top: President Obama speaks at the town hall-style meeting in Washington.
Middle: Hastings Mkandawire, center, a UW-Stout fellow from Malawi, listens during the YALI summit.
Bottom: Mark Fenton from UW-Stout meets in Washington with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs.