Nasera Victoria is from South Sudan, but she was born and grew up knowing only the harsh life of a Ugandan refugee camp. She tells how, as a girl, she began to play soccer with the boys in the camp, mainly because she was good at fashioning soccer balls from crumpled bags, strips of plant fiber, and elastic bands.
Her talent for soccer allowed her to step out of the shadows that girls in the camps were often condemned to, continue her education, study economics in college on a soccer scholarship, and ultimately found a girls’ soccer league upon returning to South Sudan. That project—an NGO called the Nasvick Initiative—opens similar opportunities to hundreds of girls across the region. It was this enterprising spirit that brought Victoria to Dartmouth as one of 25 Mandela Washington Fellows in the College’s 2018 session of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) business and entrepreneurship institute.
Victoria says she is keenly aware of how privileged she is to be among the tiny fraction of African trail blazers selected to attend the YALI program at Dartmouth.
“It is up to us, the few who made it into this program, to now go back home and transfer this knowledge to the youth of our nations. And this very youth, plus us, will now walk together to broaden the cycle of transforming our countries. That will be the best thing we can do now,” she says.
Dartmouth: A Founding Partner
The U.S. State Department’s Mandela Washington Fellowships, launched in 2014 as part of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, provide young business, cultural, and civic leaders from sub-Saharan Africa with an opportunity to study at one of 37 U.S. colleges or universities, and provide continued support for professional development after they return home.
Since the YALI program began five years ago, Dartmouth has hosted 125 young innovators from 38 countries, built a training network of leaders and entrepreneurs across Africa, and enriched the lives of Dartmouth students and the Upper Valley community, says Daniel Benjamin, the Norman E. McCulloch Jr. Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, which runs the YALI program with support from many other campus partners..
“For the Dickey Center and the many students, faculty, staff, and community members who engaged with the fellows in one way or another, the benefits have been incredible—enduring friendships, a vast range of new insights and understandings of the varied lives of Africans, the creation of a large network of contacts across two continents, joint projects, and numerous visits to different parts of Africa by undergraduates and recent graduates,” Benjamin says.
“Putting the YALI summer together every year has been a lot of work, but the benefits have been incalculable.”
The six-week Dartmouth program involves intensive business and entrepreneurship training, instruction and practical work in design thinking led by Thayer School of Engineering Lecturer Eugene Korsunskiy, and workshops on building a business plan and pitching it to investors, led by entrepreneur Rich Nadworny ’82 in collaboration with Research Professor Lorie Loeb, executive director of Dartmouth’s DALI Lab. The fellows also go on site visits to innovative area businesses, including King Arthur Flour, Timberland, and Ben & Jerry’s, and participate in leadership sessions led by the Tuck School of Business, team-building events led by the Outdoor Programs Office, service programs led by the Center for Social Impact, and many cultural events.
Among the projects the fellows produced at Dartmouth were a series of short video biographies, created with support from Susan Simon of the Jones Media Center. Victoria’s is titled, “The Cry of a Refugee Girl.”
A “Life-Changing” Experience
After Umar Farouk Abdulrasheed graduated from college in his native Nigeria with a degree in botany, he set to work developing a low-tech clean-energy cook stove to replace the traditional open-fire cooking method used by many Nigerians. He aimed to reduce the problem of indoor air pollution, curtail deforestation, alleviate poverty by cutting the cost of cooking, and improve living conditions for women and children who are forced to travel great distances in dangerous conditions every day to find scarce firewood.
Abdulrasheed began work on his stove after his post-graduate ambition of finding a place in the white-collar workforce was cut short and he joined millions of young unemployed in his country. He says the training in design thinking and entrepreneurship at Dartmouth have given him the tools he needs to scale up his business and, more importantly, to share entrepreneurial and organizational skills with a new generation of leaders in Nigeria.
“My experience here at Dartmouth has been life changing. One thing I’ve learned here is that you need to give. Everything we take from here we take because of the willing hands of the lecturers and teachers and advisers we have met,” he says. “A lot of the youth back home—they have more knowledge of the challenges and issues we face, and they are more innovative than most, but they don’t have the privilege to be here. So we must take this back and continue to give.”
From Hanover to the World
Both Abdulrasheed and Victoria say they have been inspired by the work and talent of the other young innovators from Africa they lived and worked with over six weeks in Hanover.
“I think one of the best assets we’ve developed so far is ourselves,” Abdulrasheed says. “Being here and having a cohort of 25 fellows from 20 different countries, each of them with their different ideas and different specialties, we are trying to hear from everyone what they are doing and how they are doing it. We learn from their experiences.”
At the July 26 closing reception for the fellows, Thomas Candon, who administers the program at the Dickey Center along with YALI Academic Director Amy Newcomb, said working with the Mandela Washington Fellows for five years has been an inspiration. The fellows not only learned from their training in the United States, but they have opened many Americans’ eyes about the creativity, passion, and innovative spirit that drives the next generation of African leaders.
“It’s extremely rewarding to me to have helped oversee this institute, on this campus, and to know that 125 Dartmouth Fellows will be on the continent and throughout the world putting to good work what they learned here in Hanover,” Candon said at the reception.
“Now do good work, do us proud, and help us change the narrative here, in our own country. Make everyone here realize what you have to offer, with a loud ‘watch us now.’”
William Platt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.