Mandela Washington Fellows 2021: Building Resilient Leaders in a Pandemic

A screenshot of a networking event Drexel held for the 2021 Mandela Washington Fellows to connect with representatives from Citizen Diplomacy International Philadelphia.
A screenshot of a networking event Drexel held for the 2021 Mandela Washington Fellows to connect with representatives from Citizen Diplomacy International Philadelphia.

For years, Drexel University has welcomed recipients of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship program of the U.S. Department of State’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), to prepare young and engaged citizen leaders to take on the challenges of the 21st century. With the COVID-19 pandemic — arguably, one of the largest global challenges of this century starting last year and still ongoing — such leadership mentoring has become more important than ever.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of State had postponed the 2020 Fellowship until the summer of 2021, and when it resumed, it was in an all-virtual format. This summer, the 25 Fellows paired with Drexel remained in their home countries while participating in synchronous and asynchronous leadership and professional development training in civic engagement. Across the entire Fellowship, Fellows were placed in three different tracks of study related to their interests and experience, and they participated in Communities of Practice, including the advocacy and health and medicine COPs led by Drexel. They also engaged in remote networking and mentoring sessions with University faculty and professional staff as well as local Philadelphia leaders and working professionals. During this time, the Fellows also participated in virtual civic engagement opportunities and tours of Philadelphia attractions.

Since 2018, Drexel has hosted a Leadership in Civic Engagement Institute through the Fellowship, due to the University’s commitment to civic engagement. The Fellows paired with Drexel typically serve the public through non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations and/or volunteerism, and their time at the University is usually spent learning about the University’s civic engagement mission and programs while also working and learning from the Dragons carrying out those Drexel objectives.  

This year, given the virtual format, activities shifted online and both synchronous and asynchronous programming were implemented to accommodate time differences and equalize the Fellowship experience across Institutes. Through Drexel, the program, facilitated through the Office of Global Engagement, partnered Fellows with faculty and professional staff coaching them through training, mentoring sessions, and a “Focus Project” related to their specific goals and professional interests. Director of Global Engagement Adam Zahn, who is the academic director for the Mandela Washington Fellowship cohort, played a large role in reaching out to and arranging for virtual programming led by faculty, finalizing the cohort’s agenda and leading weekly overview sessions.

“Including 2021, Drexel has played host to 100 Mandela Washington Fellows, who have had all such significant impact, both in their home countries as well as in Philadelphia. These Fellows are lawyers, doctors, artists, educators, and activists and contribute to Drexel’s mission of becoming the most globally engaged campus in the nation,” said Zahn. “We have had several faculty participate in Reciprocal Exchanges, such as developing projects with previous Fellows in their home countries. The Fellowship has been invaluable to our expanding relationships with the African continent.”

 Additionally, this summer the Fellows learned and experienced more of Philadelphia’s cultural offerings through opportunities managed by Coordinator Casey Devine, who served as Administrative Director for the Fellowship. Participants took a virtual guided Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia and virtual guided experiences with the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and Mural Arts Philadelphia. And for extra bonding outside of scheduled programming, a WhatsApp group was created for the Fellows and Dragons to connect and chat.

To learn more about civic and community engagement and how it is practiced at Drexel, the Fellows also met professional staff from with the University’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. Assistant Director for Community-Based Learning Cara Scharf and Tais Idi-Infante, Global Studies ’20, led the Fellows in practices, presentations and discussions based on gentrification, access and equity as well as food sovereignty and food deserts in Philadelphia and in their home countries.

“Through our involvement with the Mandela Washington Fellowship, Drexel is serving to strengthen connections between the United States and Africa and establish enduring partnerships between Fellows, local communities and private businesses,” said Devine. “Hosting a cohort of Fellows is a great way to connect Drexel and Philadelphia’s local communities to the global community, allowing Fellows to join President John Fry’s mission to make Drexel the ‘most civically engaged university’ in the United States.”

Fellowship Alumni who visited Drexel in previous summers have gone on to become active leaders in their home countries. Notably, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, previous Fellows stepped up to keep their communities safe, with some creating and participating in healthcare worker training and public health messaging, for example.

Receiving leadership training and mentoring in the context of a pandemic this year will help the most recent Fellows, some of whom are doctors and healthcare workers, support and aid their neighbors in the ongoing pandemic. After completing the program at Drexel, the Fellows participated in a virtual summit with the other 675 Mandela Washington Fellows hosted by 25 other U.S. educational institutions this summer.

Other Drexel and faculty and professional staff not previously mentioned who engaged with and supported the Fellows this summer include:

  • Lindy Center for Civic Engagement professional staff members Associate Director of Community-Based Learning Carrie Hutnick and Executive Director Jennifer Johnson Kebea, EdD, executed Community of Practice programming for Fellows with an Advocacy track across all institutes, which Hutnick later wrote about. College of Arts and Sciences Assistant Teaching Professor Steve Vásquez Dolph, PhD, assisted with developing material for those sessions.
  • College of Nursing and Health Professions Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Associate Clinical Professor Veronica Carey, PhD; Assistant Clinical Professor Kimberly McClellan, EdD; Assistant Clinical Professor Rita K. Adeniran, DrNP;  and Assistant Clinical Professor Ebony White, PhD, developed and participated in Community of Practice sessions designed for Fellows across Institutes with a track in Health and Medicine, as the faculty later wrote about.
  • Dornsife School of Public Health Clinical Professor and Director of the Office of Global Health Joseph Amon, PhD, and doctoral student Nishita D’Souza led a forum for the Fellows related to data, monitoring and evaluation. Amon and D’Souza later wrote their experience developing a Track Foundation Session.
  • LeBow College of Business Associate Professor Lauren D’Innocenzo, PhD, led a session about decision-making and leadership in successful teams for a Supplemental Leadership Session.
  • Goodwin College of Professional Studies Assistant Clinical Professor and Department Head of Graduate Studies Anne Wilkomm; Senior Vice Provost for University Collections and Exhibitions and Executive Director for the Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships Rosalind Remer, PhD; Chuck Sacco, Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives, Director of the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship; Swarthmore College Director of Admissions Andrew Moe, EdD; and Fox & Rothschild, LLP, Partner Marilou Watson, JD, served as  Focus Project Coaches, working with the Fellows as mentors over the course of the Fellowship for their Focus Project.
  • Director for the Center for Black Culture Shardé Johnson led a networking opportunity for Fellows to learn more about Drexel’s initiatives to promote equity and justice for Black lives. 
  • Office of Global Engagement’s Senior Director of Education Abroad Ahaji Schreffler, led two Community Leadership Curriculum (CLC) sessions with the Fellows related to strengths and leadership. Schreffler, who is also vice president of Drexel's Black Faculty and Professional Staff Association, connected the Fellows with her colleagues in the organization to discuss increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations. 

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. Drexel University is a sub-grantee of IREX and implemented a Leadership Institute as a part of the 2021 Fellowship. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit the Fellowship’s website at