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Young African Leaders Emboldened by Mandela Washington Fellowship at Drexel University

August 24, 2023

Two rows of people standing in front of the dragon statue on Drexel's campus holding flags of their home African countries.
Drexel Institute Mandela Fellows on their last day of training. Photo courtesy Parfait Kouacou.

This article was written by Parfait Kouacou, PhD, an associate teaching professor in the College of Art and Sciences, and the academic director of the Drexel Mandela Washington Fellowship Institute.  

The 2023 Mandela Washington Fellowship iteration concluded in Washington, D.C. with a summit attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Blinken lauded the fellows for their impactful work in their communities and recognized the promise they hold for a better Africa. 

As previously announced, Drexel University hosted 23 fellows from 17 African nations this summer for the 2023 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Around 700 fellows hosted at 28 institutions of higher education in America, including Drexel, gathered at the Washington DC Omni Shoreham Hotel from July 31 to Aug. 2 to celebrate the completion of their six weeks of training. The U.S. Department of State commended the 28 U.S. colleges and universities for hosting the fellows this year. A LinkedIn post from the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) urged the fellows to continue embracing their Institute communities and carry their school spirit with them upon returning home. 

A man and a woman standing up surround a young man holding a diploma.
Rogers Omollo receiving certificates of completion from Academic Director Parfait Kouacou, PhD and Administrative Director Ahaji Schreffler. Photo courtesy Parfair Kouacou.

Throughout their immersive experience at Drexel, the Mandela Fellows engaged in a diverse range of activities aimed at enriching their leadership skills, fostering connections, and making impactful contributions to the community. They had the unique opportunity to engage with Drexel faculty, leadership and partners, foster connection within the university community and its partners, learn from civic leaders, corporate executives, government officials and selected American families. In addition to learning about the cultural diversity of the region through a visit to the Amish community in Lancaster County, a tour of Africatown in Southwest Philadelphia, fellows also toured the United Nations in New York city and Philadelphia’s mural art landscape.

These visits were complemented by insightful panel discussions and experience sharing with American professionals. Fellows also made an impact in the community by lending their support to local non-profit organizations addressing hunger and homelessness.

Drexel University Mandela Washington Fellow Rogers Omollo, a social impact leader from Kenya, responded to the post, claiming that “Drexel University is the best place to be.” Rogers then wrote another post to thank the University and its staff.

Omollo was not alone to take his Dragon experience to social media. Fellows spoke highly of their experiences at Drexel University, especially on Linkledin. 

Mandela Fellow Abdifatah Mohamed, a disability advocate from Ethiopia, posted that he thought the Institute team worked tirelessly to offer fellows their best and ensure that they felt at ease both in and outside of the classroom in terms of their education, networking and safety.  

A man in a white shirt and a scarf holds a microphone in one hand while pointing up with a finger on the other hand.
Abdifatah Mohamed signing his talk during the Summit in D.C. Photo courtesy Parfait Kouacou.

Mohamed was selected as the Drexel University representative for the Ignite Talk — a TED talk style presentation where representatives from each university address the public about the most pressing issues. The theme for this year's talk was "Building our shared future." Mohamed's moving speech about the inclusion and education of disabled African children earned the only standing ovation at the Summit.

Throughout the events, fellows who identify as proud Dragons cheered loudly in the Summit room anytime Drexel was mentioned. One such moment occurred when Joel Duah Afi, the co-founder of the Abusua Community Medical Centre in northern Ghana and a Drexel Institute Mandela Fellow 2019 alumnus, was invited by the Department of State to share about the excellent work he is doing in his community.

Unknown to the fellows, their impact on the University and Philadelphia communities was significant. Drexel Associate Dean of the Graduate College and Associate Teaching Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Anne Converse Willkomm, who taught three workshops on leadership communication, wrote on LinkedIn, “I continue to feel like I get so much out of my engagement with the Fellows than they get from me - thank you!

Willkomm, who was the Academic Director of the 2019 Institute, has been involved in every Drexel Mandela Fellowship cohort since then. She added that she enjoyed getting to know the fellows to learn more about them and their countries, and is continuing to be inspired by their spirit and dedication to their respective causes, projects and work. 

Just like Willkomm, most speakers who interacted with Mandela Fellows appreciated the experience.

A woman, a man and a woman stand smiling at the camera
Anne Converse Willkomm, right, posing with Fellows Khady Faye (left, from Senegal) and Frederic Obiang (center, from Gabon). Photo courtesy Parfait Kouacou.

Raquel Arredondo, an assistant dean in the Graduate College of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, shared her enthusiasm for being part of the fellowship again after seven years. She was first invited to facilitate a workshop for the Mandela Washington Fellowship as a member of the Drexel community. Today, even though she’s at the University of Pennsylvania, she's still enthusiastic about the six-week training Fellows receive at Drexel University. 

Despite the impact they left on the academic, corporate and civic community in Philadelphia, Fellows appears transformed by the Mandela Fellowship experience. Fellow Wudase Akalewold, MD, a medical doctor and health equity advocate from Ethiopia, explained in another post that the “experience has shaped my worldview in many ways and the learning and takeaways are so immense that they are hard to summarize.”Akalewold explained feeling a renewed sense of courage in her heart to tackle the challenges of HIV-related health service access in Ethiopia after the Institute. 

The Mandela Washington Fellowship, a flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), empowers young African leaders through academic coursework, leadership training, mentoring, networking, professional opportunities, and local community engagement. Since becoming institute partner in 2017, Drexel has hosted over 160 Mandela Washington Fellows. Funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and implemented by IREX, leadership institutes offer programs to challenge, motivate and empower young leaders from Africa to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.