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From Mandela to the World


April 27, 2022

By Muhammad Saddiq Ahmad
Co-Founder/CEO at Rural Health Mission Nigeria
Mandela Washington Fellowship, 2018


The Mandela Washington Fellowship was the first international opportunity that allowed me to travel to the United State of America. Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders’ Initiative (YALI). Since 2014, nearly 5,000 young leaders from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa have participated in the fellowship. The Fellows, between the ages of 25 and 35, are accomplished leaders and have established records of promoting innovation and positive impact in their communities and countries. The fellowship provides its participants with the opportunity to hone their skills at a U.S. college or university with support for professional development after they return home.


After two attempts, on March 20th, 2018 at around 3:30 pm I received one of the most exciting mails from the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that changed my life forever. The message read “Dear Muhammad Ahmad; Congratulations!  You have been chosen to participate in the 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders…” Attached to the email was a congratulatory letter from the Ambassador of the United State of America in Nigeria. The message noted that I would be spending six weeks of academic residency at a U.S. university. Days after, I received an email from International Research Exchange (IREX) the implementing partner of the program with information that I was placed at the Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A few weeks later, an email from Drexel University came welcoming us to the university for our six weeks academic residency.

We had our pre-departure orientation and dinner at the U.S. Embassy, Abuja from May 1st to 3rd 2018 after which visas were processed for each of us for entry into the United State..\ I later departed with other colleagues, about eight of us transiting through Paris, France. This is where we all went our different ways, I flew to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York before finally proceeding to Philadelphia. In New York, I had a little hitch again with the U.S. immigration officers who could not process me on time and I missed the last flight to Philadelphia. I called the emergency number we were given using an airport staff’s mobile phone and informed our contact at Drexel University about my situation. They reassured me that everything was going to be sorted out and so it was. A few minutes later, a staff of the airline came by and asked me if it was okay for me to transit through Atlanta to Philadelphia because there was no flight going to Philadelphia from New York and I obliged her request.


June 20th, 2018 was my first day in Philadelphia when I landed at Philadelphia International Airport at about 12:15 am. As I was walking out from the arrival lounge of the airport toward the baggage claim area, I saw a Drexel staff member with a placard inscription with my name written, followed by “Mandela Fellow” under my name. I walked straight toward her acknowledging the placard she was holding and she immediately recognized that I was the one she’d come to pick. I grabbed my bag and we drove into the city over a long bridge which I later found out that it was the famous Benjamin Franklin bridge in Philadelphia. I checked into the Millennium Hall students dome which is the tallest building on the Drexel main campus. The next morning, I was the first to come out to the lobby despite jet lags and started meeting colleagues from 22 different African countries who had come for the same program. I was the only Nigerian fellow posted to Drexel University therefore, I knew that I had to quickly adapt and be open to meeting new people.


My six weeks at Drexel university have taught me life lessons that I will never forget anytime soon and I was also exposed to critical professional skills and information that cannot be gotten from conventional academic life. To say the least, the leadership training was central to my professional growth. This is where I first learned about team building, organizational management, running a corporate organization, etc. A lot of exciting modules covered during these six weeks were exactly what I needed to understand how to navigate toward my goals and mission in life. During these weeks, we were also engaged in site visits to organizations and institutions within and outside Philadelphia where we learned best practices that we may implement in our respective organizations.


My favorite part of the training was the pitching competition, public speaking training, grant writing practice, and networking sessions with faculty members and other members of the community. I met most of my current contacts during these sessions. Some of the people I met during the networking sessions later became lifelong donors to my organization, mentors, partners, and friends. I remained in touch with most of the faculty members who continue to support me in my professional journey. For example, I met Kate Clark, Director of Strategic Initiatives, College of Nursing & Health Professions, during a networking session at the college of nursing and health profession campus. Through her, I have gotten several slots to speak at global conferences, and she has always made herself available to review my applications for grants and other opportunities which she constantly shared with me. I also met Allison, my host-stay family, during the fellowship and she has been supporting my organization in many ways; from writing my staff bio on our website to fundraising for my projects. Allison is now one of our top donors and fundraisers internationally.


After my fellowship at Drexel University, I felt more confident and well-informed about international opportunities. I learned how to better search and apply for opportunities including fellowships, scholarships, and grants. My first successful international grant since founding my organization was from the World Connect Organization. I later accessed grants from the U.S. Embassy, Global Giving, and other organizations. I also hosted Ebony White, PhD, Assistant Clinical Professor, Counseling and Family Therapy, at a locally organized conference.


I had the opportunity to attend fully-funded international conferences in Kenya, Rwanda, and The Gambia, as well as local conferences. The lesson I learned from all these is that each time you access an opportunity it prepares you for a bigger one. To date, I still refer to some materials that were taught at Drexel University during my fellowship and apply them to my organizational management as well as my professional life. I find it much easier now to draft application essays due to the experiences I gathered over the years.


I recently participated in one of the most prestigious global public health Fellowships called the Atlantic Fellowship for Health Equity at the George Washington University in Washington DC. It is a highly competitive fellowship where only ten fellows are selected internationally plus ten US-based fellows and I was opportune to be one of the 10 international fellows. This fellowship further exposed me to critical leadership skills and allowed me to engage and work with public health experts around the world on different projects. Through this fellowship, I have attended two international conferences and have been selected to participate in a fully-funded Moth storytelling workshop.


I believe that my recent professional and leadership achievement is not unconnected to my previous exposure at Drexel University because people whom I met at Drexel are the same people who are firmly supporting me and my organization today.


The amazing team at the Drexel University led by Adam Zahn of Office of Global Engagement are the best people I have ever met in life. They are so passionate and good at what they do. Their professional commitment to work is inspiring and I have learned a lot from them. I will ever be grateful to all the faculty members and colleagues at Drexel University who have been my company on this journey.

Muhammad Saddiq Ahmad