Oluyemisi Adekemi Akinwande didn’t have any problem getting admitted to the master’s in public health program at Johns Hopkins University. A Nigerian, she wanted to study at Hopkins to learn more about how her work in local health organizations could curb the spread of HIV.
But while Hopkins admitted her, it couldn’t cover her expenses and she had to defer enrollment, and defer again, and again. “I’d pretty much given up hope,” she says.
She arrived at Hopkins last year courtesy of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program.  Created in 2000, the program pays for three years of graduate study at any institution in the world for students from developing nations. While the program is young compared to programs like the Fulbrights or Rhodes Scholarships, it has major ambitions. Indeed, the Ford program aims to change the mindset of international exchange, rejecting a number of policies that are common in the major exchange programs.
Specifically, the Ford program puts an emphasis on students who are not only from developing nations, but who are disadvantaged in those nations. That means students who come from remote areas are more likely to win fellowships than those who live in capital cities. If they don’t speak English and want to study in the United States or Britain, no problem. Ford will pay for them to learn. If they want to study in their home country instead of at a university in an industrialized nation, no problem. If the students don’t have laptops (and most don’t), Ford gives them one. And so the students don’t need to be separated from their families for three years, Ford gives them "family funds" to cover periodic trips (although some fellows say that they instead send the money home to help their families with basic expenses).
"We see this as a new model for international exchange: focusing on talented, socially committed people who don’t have access to other resources," says Joan Dassin, executive director of the program.
While the program’s participants don’t have access to resources, Ford does. The foundation committed $280 million to the program, more than it has provided in any other grant.
Since the program was created, it has also been growing. From under 100 awards made in 2001 (the first year in which fellows were selected), Ford has awarded fellowships to just over 400 students in the academic year that just ended, and will select 565 additional students in the year ahead. The students are studying in 40 countries, with about 30 percent in the United States or Canada, 33 percent in Europe, and the remainder in their home countries.
Dassin says that the program is probably reaching its natural capacity -- at least for now. Having created the infrastructure for the fellowships, Ford is now taking stock and evaluating what it sees as the significance of the effort.
A big emphasis of the program is the idea of using the fellowships to improve conditions in developing nations. That’s why the program seeks out students who face discrimination in their home countries – and among those focuses on those who are activists for change in their fields. Many of the participants, like Akinwande, the Nigerian student at Hopkins, are women, who aren’t always afforded opportunities at home. They don’t have money in their own families.
“I didn’t have a godfather,” says Akinwande, referring to the way Nigerians talk about those with money and connections.
Dassin notes that about 5 percent of fellows have disabilities, and that a number of them want to use their education to advance the disability rights movements in their home countries -- movements that are years or decades behind those in the United States.
Many of the program participants say that they are used to seeing scarce educational opportunities (or at least those that are paid for) go to those in their local communities who already have the most money and opportunities. Jyotsna Mandal, who is from the Jharkhand state in northeast India, said that she was discouraged when she applied for the fellowship to find out that some of the wealthiest students in town were also applying. She assumed they would get the money. They didn’t.
Mandal is studying journalism at the University of Wales. She plans to return to India and look for a job in television news and to use that position to focus on rural issues, which she says are largely ignored.
When she was accepted to the program two years ago, Mandal spoke Hindi and not English. In cases like hers, Ford pays for a year of intense English-language training (or training in another language) prior to the start of the fellowship. Requiring fluency in English before someone can be awarded a fellowship is “hugely exclusionary,” Dassin says.
Fellowship sponsors need to be willing to consider non-English speakers, Dassin says, if they want to reach grant recipients who can really make a difference. “The philosophy of the program is that those who live in communities that are the most affected by poverty and inequality are those most likely to work for positive change,” she says.
That means that the program’s Mexican fellows are all indigenous Mexicans, many of those from Africa are Muslims or women, and those from Brazil tend to be African-Brazilians.
The students can study anything they want at any institution that will admit them, and because the fellowships can be awarded before a student has been admitted, a student can use the grant to help get in. Because students are selected in part based on their commitment to improving their communities, there is a strong practical orientation to their areas of study.
Within the United States, some of the most popular institutions among program participants are Brandeis University (for sustainable development), the University of Hawaii at Manoa (for numerous programs dealing with the Pacific Rim), Cornell University (for agriculture and international development) and Tulane University (in tropical medicine). Many of the American universities, Dessin says, have awarded partial scholarships or waived out-of-state tuition rates to enable the program to have more money for other students, or to help students finish up Ph.D.’s after the fellowship’s three years of expenses are over.
Outside the United States, Britain is a popular choice for study, as is Spain, the latter primarily for those from Latin America. Fellowship winners in Brazil tend to stay in their country for their educations, and Brazilian universities are also attracting participants from Mozambique, given the common colonial history and language.
A big issue with many international fellowship programs is brain drain. Some fear that fellowships just become pipelines to help the best talent leave a country. Here again, because the emphasis of the program selection process is on students who are committed to helping their countries, the program appears to be achieving its goals.
Of those whose fellowships have ended, 80 percent are back in their home country, and 15 percent are in additional educational programs (finishing up Ph.D.’s, for example) or in internships preparing to go back. With a few fellows whose plans are uncertain, Dassin says that it appears that the program will lose only about 3 percent of fellowship winners to the countries where they studied. “We can’t be sanguine about brain drain. We need to pick students who will go back and promote change,” she says.
Given that conventional wisdom holds that the most talented foreign students speak English, come from the most developed parts of the country, and may well have already studied in a Western nation, Dassin is particularly proud of the academic success of the fellows. Since the program started, only two students have had to drop out for academic reasons. And 66,000 students have applied for the fellowships.
"There is a huge unmet need that the other programs have not reached," Dassin says.