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Personal Reflections on the Mandela Washington Fellowship

Posted on August 21, 2019
Image of the Fellows wearing Drexel t-shirts in front of Mario the Dragon

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a U.S. Department of State sponsored grant that brings 700 young African leaders to the United States for six weeks on one of three tracks: civic engagement, business, or public management. This is Drexel’s third year hosting the Mandela Fellows in the civic engagement track. Goodwin College of Professional Studies and the Office of Global Engagement co-hosted the 2019 cohort. The Fellowship was co-directed by me (faculty and Dept. Head at Goodwin) and Adam Zahn (Associate Director of Global Engagement & Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Global Engagement).

When I first signed on as the Academic Director for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I had a sense of what this Fellowship entailed, but much of my thought process was focused on being involved with the types of incredible young leaders I had met as a peer collaborator the previous two years. I had no idea how much they would impact me or the University. There is no doubt the Fellows are the primary beneficiaries of this grant, but make no mistake every person who interacted with the Fellows gained something in return, as did the University as a whole.

Image of the Mandela Fellows standing on the Lebow Staircase looking down at the camera.

While the Fellows were here, they experienced a broad range of educational and professional opportunities. A selection of external site visits included: U.S. Department of State, United Nations, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Goldman Sachs, the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office, National Museum of African American History, Lancaster County, PA, Tenement Museum, Our Closet, Philly FIGHT, WOAR, and many more. Several civic leaders met with the Fellows, including: US Rep. from PA: Dwight Evans; Eboni Staton Weidman, Southeast Regional Director of Senator Casey’s Office; PA State Rep. Joanna McClinton and Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym. 

The Fellows connected with scientists and pharmacologists at Temple to learn more about the newest HIV medications, which led to conversations about getting these transformative drugs to countries in Africa. They have joined University of Pennsylvania grants to use drones to map disease hotspots in Malawi, and some have already applied to return to Drexel to further their education. A handful of Fellows are planning reciprocal exchanges (like the ones Dean Fuller and Adam Zahn have completed)—in this case, this year’s Fellows focusing on arts therapy and mental health. Their time spent at Drexel and the connections our Fellows made will lead to incredible results, one has already been asked to serve as the Director General of Health in his country.

Our Fellows represented 20 different African countries. They were an incredibly diverse group of young African leaders: doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, lawyers, economists, artists, and activists. Their passion and yearning to help others in their communities was impressive, and more importantly, it was infectious. Every person who interacted with the Fellows could feel their energy, their enthusiasm, and their innate desire to make a difference in their communities.

Mandela Fellows jumping in the air, wearing gold Drexel t-shirts in front of Independence Hall 

Goodwin College, normally more quiet during the summer months since our first-year students are on break, came alive with the activity of the Fellows. On some days, passersby heard engaging stories of hope and tenacity, other days cheers and laughter or the brainstorming banter of a group project, and on one occasion the beat of drums accompanied by incredible African dancing. They learned about leadership from Drexel’s talented faculty and from each other. They met with peers and with our civic leaders, they lifted one another up, they shared, cried and they formed lifelong bonds with each other and with those who entered GHall 368.

As a teacher, mother, women, and human being, it was heart-warming to watch the Fellows learn about one another, accept one another – despite their many differences, and bond with each other. One Fellow, Loveena Sungkur said upon her return home to Mauritius, “Those seven weeks were the most inclusive, enriching, and diverse days of my life. We were all so different in terms of sexual orientation, culture, race, looks, habits, yet we blended without any boundaries. I’ve learn[ed] so much especially from my [LBGTQ] and Deaf friends. We flowed like water, freely. In our society, we are shape[d] by norms, mindset, laws and religion. We aren’t inclusive yet and we have a long way to go. But we have to start somewhere.”

What did I learn?

Image of Anne Converse Willkomm flanked by 5 Fellows in traditional African attire.

I met 25 incredible individuals, who each brought different achievements and challenges to the table. They have already achieved success, making incredible strides in their various pursuits fueled by innovation and determination. But some struggle to bring much needed medicine to their communities, some to feel safe being whom they are, and some to focus their desire to bring change. When I think about all they do already and how many dreams and aspirations they have to bring real change to their communities, I am BLOWN AWAY. I am impressed, and I am invigorated.

Each of the Fellows gave me a gift, and I’m not talking about the tangible ones, which are lovely, and I will cherish. No, I’m talking about the gift of themselves in the lessons they taught me. They enriched my life by sharing stories of their lives and cultures. They re-energized my entrepreneurial spirit. They taught me to be more present in the moment, which ultimately makes me appreciate more of what is going on around me. They also gave me the gift of stepping out of my everyday routine, which allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my own life, my purpose, my goals, and my dreams.

From a University Perspective

Image of Mandela Washington Fellows and Co-Directors: Anne Converse Willkomm and Adam Zahn

As already noted, it is not just the individuals who benefitted, Drexel University, as an institution, is also a beneficiary. More than 12 of the University’s colleges and schools participated in some manner – running an academic session, facilitating discussions, hosting a networking event, serving as peer collaborators or connecting the Fellows to the greater Philadelphia academic, nonprofit community or civic organizations. The Fellows also performed 15 hours of community service in the greater Philadelphia area, including at the Dornsife Center for Community Partnerships, the Lindy Center, the Salvation Army, Belmont Charter School, and Our Closet.

Image of the Fellows kneeling in front of the Dornsife Center sign. 

While much of the recognition and success is at the hands of each of these Fellows, they will tell you it all started at Drexel University. Their Drexel pride is unwavering! While at the Summit in Washington, D.C. – a final event where all 700 young African leaders come together, the Fellows perfected the Drexel Fight song, often breaking out while in line or at speaking events when a Drexel Fellow was introduced. It was exhilarating to watch! They truly take the “Once a dragon always a dragon” sentiment to heart. In fact, this week, one of our Fellows spent professional development time in New York City at the Startingbloc Fellowship and met up with a few fellow Nigerians, one of whom is a 19-year-old Drexel student and they have a shared connection of being a Drexel Dragon.

I have been forever changed by the presence of the 2019 Drexel Mandela Fellows, they have left their mark on me and on Goodwin College and the University as a whole. While they will hold a special place in my heart, I look forward to a continued partnership with the Office of Global Engagement and the incredible collaboration across the University to plan and prepare for the 2020 Mandela Washington Fellows.


Anne Converse Willkomm

Assistant Clinical Professor

Department Head of Graduate Studies

Goodwin College
Drexel University

Posted in innovation-workplace, leadership-management-skills