From Minnesota to Malawi, to building the workforce, helping victims of domestic violence, and tackling misinformation, alumni of U.S. government exchange programs are helping their communities in crisis and building on their exchange program experiences.
U.S. and foreign exchange program alumni have been harnessing their international exchange experiences to give back to their local communities for decades. This year is no exception, as alumni have delivered on many fronts, coming up with innovative solutions to pandemic-related public health and economic challenges. Their collective work highlights how alumni continue to meet the most urgent needs in their local communities. Many are doing so with the support of rapid response funding grants, such as the Alumni Rapid Response Fund, from the U.S. Department of State
Below are ten of these inspiring alumni stories.
Starting in the United States, exchange alumnus and Sports Envoy Tony Sanneh and his team at The Sanneh Foundation (TSF) are making a huge difference in St. Paul, Minnesota. From ramping up workforce development support to help people who have lost their jobs, to providing support for youth in navigating resources online, and initiating a “grab and go” meal kit program by working with food banks, Sanneh is helping many of those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of that, TSF serves as an example by promoting unity, respect for diversity, and solidarity. Under Sanneh’s leadership, TSF trains police officers internationally on relationship-based leadership to connect officers with their communities in peaceful ways. Sanneh hopes to do the same locally.
Sanneh established TSF in 2003 to support community-based organizations and, “to leverage what he saw as soccer’s unique potential to create positive social change for youth.” In his role as a Sports Envoy, Sanneh has worked in Cyprus, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Malaysia and Bolivia to further American cultural values of gender equity and respect for diversity.
Across Africa, where many lack access to the internet, Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF) alumnus Alfred Andrew Kankuzi created an easy-to-access, low bandwidth app called COVID NEBA – or “Hey Neighbor,” as it is also known – to provide accurate information on COVID-19 to as many Malawians as possible. “Hey Neighbor” provides accurate COVID-19 information in three languages: Chichewa, Tumbuka, and English.
Kankuzi has over four years’ experience in software engineering and graphics and infographics design, with a special focus on Information and Communication Technologies, entrepreneurship, and rule of law and governance. He is the CEO and founder of Legal Wallet, a non-profit organization focused on promoting participatory and inclusive governance to widen access to justice by people of all social, cultural and economic backgrounds.
On supporting his home community in Malawi, Kankuzi says,
“We need to feel, relate, think and be in the shoes of our communities for the greater good, and not personal gain. This is what the University of Notre Dame and the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders has taught me.”
International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumna Cecilia Onyango, CEO of Health, Empowerment, Rights (HER) Kenya, conducts door-to-door welfare checks throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to assist victims of gender-based violence. Thanks to her team’s efforts, the Kenyan government announced a new toll-free telephone line for victims of domestic violence. Onyango participated in the IVLP “Developing Civil Society: Women in Leadership” and credits her experience in the United States to strengthening the capacity of her organization to assist communities during crises.
In Togo, Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) scholarship recipients have become models of transformation in their local communities. Drawing on their experiences in YALI, these alumni are continuing their work through the YALI Alumni Action Strategy (YAAS) Initiative, dedicated to advancing economic development and strengthening democratic institutions nationwide.
This initiative works to end violent extremism, educate young people on the importance of reading and schooling, and provide citizens access to books by setting up community bookstores across the country. With 50 YALI alumni currently committed to the program, YAAS plans to extend the reach of YALI to cover all citizens of Togo.
One group of Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) alumni in the Philippines launched a national fundraiser “Puhon!” to provide personal protective equipment for medical institutions and food packs for low-income communities. The alumni group organized a donation drive that featured an online concert by an award-winning Filipino band whose lead vocalist, Paolo Guico, is an alumnus of the USG-sponsored Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy ASEAN. The online concert reached two million views and raised $82,000 for COVID-19 relief. This example of grassroots activism was featured as part of the YSEALI Heroes campaign, which highlighted YSEALI alumni helping their communities respond to COVID-19.
U.S. Embassy Prague leveraged a new Czech-U.S. Exchange Alumni Network (CUEAN) Facebook group to combat COVID-19 health disinformation campaigns. IVLP alumnus Dr. Jan Bruthans and Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI) alumna Dr. Katerina Vackova led a virtual discussion to share facts on the virus and discuss the role of telemedicine in the United States.
In India, Study of the United States Institutes (SUSI) alumnus Ankuran Dutta spearheaded the creation of the multimedia guide “COVID Katha” to counter mis/disinformation and provide consolidated and accurate fact-checking on the global crisis. Dr. Dutta leads the Guwahati-based nonprofit Anamika Ray Memorial Trust (ARMT) and also heads the Department of Communication and Journalism at Gauhati University in Assam.
Dr. Dutta joined U.S. Speaker alumna Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of NAMLE, to share tips on how to tackle disinformation in the COVID era.
In Shtip, Macedonia, representatives from the Executive Board of the Macedonian American Alumni Association and the U.S. Embassy provided financial aid to support COVID-19 relief efforts at a rehabilitation center. Supporting high school students with disabilities from across the region, the center plans to use these funds to work toward ensuring the health and safety of its students as well as strengthening the capacities of the Financial Intelligence Office of North Macedonia, which combats money laundering and financial terrorism across the region.
Meanwhile, a popular talk show in Belize launched by a Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) alumnus aims to provide access to timely, accurate information to citizens around the COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 WATCH, an emergency response national television and internet talk show series, brings together a collection of experts, officials, business owners, and concerned citizens to discuss the burning topics and share the latest updates that impact the country. The show, which is supported by an Alumni Rapid Response Fund grant through U.S. Embassy Belmopan’s Public Affairs Section, has played an important role in Belize’s fight against the pandemic, providing important public health updates to nearly 40,000 viewers a day, while combatting rumors and providing accurate information about the pandemic.
And finally, in Mexico City, the Alumni Rapid Response Fund enabled exchange alumni to respond to COVID-19 in a unique way, drawing on the artwork and creative expression of its own urban youth. Stay Home Do Art was a virtual graffiti artwork contest, featuring 502 graffiti artists from 30 Mexican states who would normally take their artistic expressions to the streets, but no longer had that option due to social distancing and stay at home orders. This project was a public campaign focused on health, safety, and social change messages. Participating artists transformed into activists, and observers into advocates, while engaging in positive thinking and creative expression showcasing empathy and community resilience. Finalists were chosen by judges who participated in the ECA-sponsored Hip-Hop program, Next Level.
The global alumni network continues to grow as individuals complete their exchange programs, and their roles as political, economic, health, educational, and religious leaders stretch across borders and boundaries.
Since its inception in 2004, the Office of Alumni Affairs, within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), has amplified its digital outreach efforts on the International Exchange Alumni (IEA) website, Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as through Career Connections professional development seminars in the U.S. and Alumni TIES seminars to further engage and connect its #ExchangeAlumni worldwide.
Empowering others to join ECA’s exchange programs and to work toward building a more peaceful and inclusive world, these alumni have drawn on their own experiences to collaborate with one another and to work toward meeting the most urgent needs of today’s world – leaving lasting impact on their communities and beyond.
About the Authors: Asha Beh serves as an Alumni Outreach Specialist in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Alumni Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Emily Rand serves as an Alumni Communications Specialist in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Alumni Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.