While on a U.S. trade mission trip in 2003, John Tyson, Abilene Christian University’s vice president for development, found himself alone in Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana’s office. “He asked me about the university,” Tyson recalled. “I told him I represented a university that was looking for some of the brightest young men and women in the country who wanted to come to the United States and get a Christian education and return to be leaders there. He looked at me very intently and said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for.’”
Earlier this month, President Ravalomanana traveled to Texas to speak at Abilene Christian’s commencement – and, more specifically, to 24 Malagasy students graduating, each a beneficiary of the Madagascar Presidential Scholars Program.
“We need new generations of leaders who are educated and well-trained to help us develop in the 21st century,” Ravalomanana said in a speech accepting his honorary doctorate, according to a transcript provided by the university. In his speech, Ravalomanana – a devout Christian who, as the BBC has reported, came to power in 2002 after a disputed election  and has since been criticized for outspoken statements on religious views , including his statement that he “dreams of a Christian nation” – championed his Madagascar Action Plan , an eight-part roadmap for development. In a country brief,  the World Bank credits Ravalomanana's government with ambitious plans for transformation and with growing the economy at an average of 5 percent per year and reducing poverty from 80 to 69 percent. "These positive developments and the smooth presidential elections in December 2006 – Marc Ravalomanana was re-elected - offer hopeful signs that Madagascar has stepped firmly onto a path to sustained development, breaking with the history of economic mismanagement and periodic crises that impoverished the people," the World Bank document says.
“We need leaders who are willing to serve others before themselves," the president said at Abilene Christian's graduation. "We need men and women of integrity who will do what is right. We need people who take initiative, who are willing to tackle difficult issues and discover solutions. In fact, what we need in Madagascar is the same as what you need in America, and what every nation needs. We need Christian servant leaders and we need them now.”
Tyson said Abilene Christian University selected the 24 Presidential Scholars – who each received full scholarships from Madagascar’s government – from a pool of 1,031 applicants. Each student committed to spend at least two years serving Madagascar post-graduation.
“It’s a lot of pressure but it’s also a great honor to be a part of something like this,” said Joelly Rasamoelina, who graduated with a degree in sociology and hopes to become a development consultant. Madagascar, she said, hasn't always produced the return on investment of aid that she'd like to see. “As a sociology major, I think it’s because not many people actually took the time to go and find what the people need. Development is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.”
Rasamoelina said it’s unclear, given the two-year service commitment, whether she’ll immediately begin working in Madagascar or whether she will first pursue a graduate degree. She'd like a Ph.D. “I’m 21 years old…I would love to go back and work but I don’t know how well I would function in the really high-pressured environment that we will probably be in,” she said.
“I think most of us realize how much the country expects of us but we just don’t know if we’re equipped yet.”
Tyson said four other students on scholarship came to Abilene Christian one year ago and are still in the beginnings of their studies. Speaking of President Ravalomanana's intentions for the scholarship, which was not tied to particular vocational goals, Tyson said, “He wants people to have the ability to lead, and be critical thinkers and find solutions to problems. It’s more than just the subject matter of the classes. It’s more of a holistic experience that it seemed he was looking for.”