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Driven By Service

Driven By Service
Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program aims to give African women a ‘greater voice in their own lives’ and skills to strengthen their native countries
By Clarence A. Haynes


Stella Chidinma Iwuagwa, of Nigeria, had long admired Oprah Winfrey’s energy and power, but never would have imagined she would be a recipient of the media mogul’s charity. “I never thought that Oprah could have any say in my life,” Iwuagwa says. “This woman I’ve yearned to be like.”

Nonetheless, thanks to the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program for African Women, Iwuagwa and three other women were given need-based scholarships to attend New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

The Oprah Winfrey Foundation gave NYU an endowment that will lead to $2.5 million in funding for African women to attend Wagner. Winfrey made the announcement via video address in May 2002, at a Wagner School gala honoring the South African leader Nelson Mandela.

The Winfrey Scholars Program is part of Wagner’s Fund for African Public Service Education. The fund supports scholarships for African men as well and supports travel to Africa for student projects, like the Capstone programs, which are hands-on consulting assignments completed by most Wagner students.

The Oprah fellowships cover tuition, housing, meals, books, supplies and travel, and have the stipulation that all selected scholars will return to their native countries after their studies are completed.

“The fund will be established to help strong women become leaders in Africa, giving them a greater voice in their own lives,” Winfrey said in her gala address.

“The notion is that they’ll give back and work in government or nonprofit organizations in their home countries,” says Ellen Lovitz, associate dean for student affairs and administration at Wagner.

But the school found that setting up the program took a lot more funding than they had originally surmised. With the initial cash grant from the Oprah Foundation being roughly $258,000, Wagner will save up two years worth of returns in interest to bring in new scholars in 2004.

“Our decision was to suspend admitting people in 2003,” Lovitz says, citing the importance of being able to sponsor a cohort group of at least four scholars who can provide peer support for each other.

In the meantime, the current scholars, who have become friends, are making lasting connections with faculty members and organizations, such as the Women of Color Policy Network, a Wagner-based group that develops public policy interventions.

“Providing the support that’s necessary for an expensive graduate education, for an expensive city like New York, is vital,” says Pier Rogers, executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network. “Particularly when you’re talking about women from African countries, they’re often not targeted specifically.”

Two of the scholars are working toward a master’s in public administration in public and nonprofit management, while the other two are working toward a master’s of science in management. Here are their stories.

‘Nani has done it’

Eyerusalem “Nani” Fasika waited for the money. Hailing from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the research analyst had gotten accepted in 2001 to Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., where she received her bachelor’s in business management in 1992.

But she didn’t receive the fellowship she had applied for from the African Development Bank, which halted any plans of returning to Southeastern.

In 2002, she applied to NYU. Upon finding out she was accepted as a Winfrey Scholar, Fasika immediately knew what her decision would be, though coming to NYU meant leaving her son, Nathaniel, 4, and daughter, Habesha, 3, with her parents.

“This is the thing I had been waiting for for a very long time,” Fasika says.

She felt inspired by her well-educated co-workers to further advance her training when working on several important projects at the World Bank, including studies on decentralization and reviews on Ethiopia’s development and public financing. The pervasive lack of women in senior positions at her company also drove her to pursue her master’s degree.

Fasika, 35, plans to concentrate in finance as she completes her master’s in public administration (M.P.A.) In classes this semester, she’s able to integrate theory with practical application, citing as an example a business plan she’s developing in one of her financial management classes. “We’re really trying to develop a counseling and testing service for health rights at CRH,” a Nigerian health-rights organization, she says.

“We are sharing our experiences,” she says of her classmates, “getting good feedback from experienced people for no fee.”

While grateful to be at Wagner, Fasika looks forward to being reunited with her children. She also plans to return to her research analyst position at the World Bank, where she’ll continue to work in public expenditures and use her training to further explore how to eliminate Ethiopia’s devastating famine. She’s driven by service.

“I have to ask, ‘What have I done with my life? What have I contributed to my country? To the world?’

“By me being educated, it will inspire others,” she says. ‘Nani has done it.’ “

Looking for a different perspective

At 25, Lite Josephine Otoo is the baby of the Winfrey Scholars. From Accra, Ghana, Otoo received a bachelor’s in biological sciences from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in 2001. While a student, she did research for UNESCO on children’s reading habits and worked with a community broadcast station, Radio Ada.

The station was started in Ada, a rural region in Ghana that previously did not have radio, by two of Otoo’s close family friends, Wilna and Alex Quarmyne. The station formed links with other community stations, and Ada residents were able to stay on top of elections.

“It was absolutely amazing to see the transformation that this seemingly little radio station did for the whole region,” Otoo says.

Inspired by such community work and her widowed father’s “guidance and pushing,” she looked into schools abroad to pursue her master’s.

“I was looking at either Europe or America simply to give me a different perspective,” Otoo says.

She was excited to get accepted into Wagner, and received “110 percent ” support from her fiancé, Ivan Nartey, whom she married two days before leaving Accra to come to the United States for the first time.

At NYU, Otoo has enjoyed her management specialization courses and learning about “this wonderful microfinance thing” as she works toward her M.P.A., in addition to getting involved in non-classroom activities.

“Wagner gives you the opportunity to stretch out, and I guess my stretching out has been my internships,” she says.

Otoo has volunteered at the Microcredit Summit, a nine-year campaign to reach some of the world’s poorest families, especially women. Currently, she has an internship at the Institute of Public Administration, which gives her fresh perspectives on capacity building, she says.

“Everyone has this really fairytale way of thinking about development. And it’s (really) a system of programs and projects,” Otoo says. “It’s how well these programs and projects are run that makes the final project good.”

Upon her return to Ghana, Otoo is interested in finding a job in the nonprofit sector, working with a group to implement microfinancing and self-help projects.

“It would be an organization that would have some projects in the grass-roots sector,” she says. “There’s so much going on at that level. If you start above it, you just miss out on all of the people who really, really need the help.”

Going International

Stella Iwuagwa’s plate was more than full when she found out she was accepted as a Winfrey Scholar. The organization she ran in Lagos, Nigeria, the Center for the Right to Health (CRH), was on the verge of opening another site in Abuja. And then there was her family — her husband, Felix; son, Nnandi Richard, 8; and daughter, Ezinne Crystalbel, 10.

“I was torn between the responsibilities I had back home and the opportunity the scholarship presents,” says Iwuagwa, 33. “There were people living with HIV/AIDS whom I worked with that had come to depend on me so much.”

But she was feeling burned out by her routine. And others advised her to seize the opportunity to attend Wagner. So Iwuagwa accepted.

“I knew it would also be an opportunity for me to expand my network, so hopefully I’d be able to leverage more resources and opportunities for the center,” she says.

At Wagner, Iwuagwa has gotten involved in groups such as the Human Rights Watch and the Women of Color Policy Network, while taking classes for her master’s.

“It’s very intensive, but it’s so useful,” she says.

She sees her courses as tools that are helping her sharpen and broaden her management and strategic-planning skills.

“I went home for Christmas, and the auditor came to do (CRH’s) financial report,” Iwuagwa says. She asked detailed questions about his accounting, obviously having gained more technical knowledge. “I told him, ‘Don’t do this by Nigerian standards.’ The Center for the Right to Health, we’re going international!”

At the same time, Iwuagwa says her technical expertise must be balanced with a nurturing instinct.

“A woman doesn’t need to be made to feel small because she’s emotional,” Iwuagwa says. “I do not want to lose my emotion, because that is what makes me unique, that removes me from the hard-core businesswoman.”

While in America, Iwuagwa is still involved in implementing proposals and making new contacts for CRH. Upon her return to Nigeria, she wants to expand CRH’s resources, work on incorporating immediate support for clients at voluntary counseling and testing centers and form connections with other African groups.

“I want to affirm the strength and resilience that is seen in African women,” Iwuagwa says. “Though we are bent, stooped, we haven’t died!”

Parents’ dreams

As an undergraduate at the National University of Rwanda, Esther Umurava Kananura became interested in development work while doing her thesis on economic regional integration among Rwanda, Burundi and Congo.

“Living in Africa and looking at what is happening to you and your family and friends, I think you almost think about development every day,” says Kananura, 28. “So I just wanted to learn about why Africa is the way it is.”

Kananura knew turmoil firsthand — she was born in Burundi because her parents were Rwandan refugees. As Tutsis, they had to flee from conflict with the Hutus in 1972. Kananura didn’t come to Rwanda until 1994, after the genocide of that year in which an estimated 500,000-800,000 Rwandans (mostly Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus) were killed. Upon receiving a bachelor’s in history/social science, Kananura forged a career in the capital city of Kigali with various components of the United Nations, most recently working as a program officer for the U.N. Development Program.

At Wagner, while earning her M.P.A., Kananura has enjoyed the diversity of New York. She first visited the city in 2001. She’s learning Spanish, has attended globalization conferences and joined a microfinance club. Wishing she had the time to take more courses, Kananura still feels like she has gained a lot from her current courses, particularly her strategic management class.

“One thing I learned from the course is how to look into our organizations, or even the world. You have to analyze yourself and your actions by putting everything in their context,” she says. “The world is a system. Your life is a system. Your organization is a system. Anytime you want to analyze something, you have to look at different parts of the system.”

Kananura plans to return to Kigali in the fall. “I would like to remain in the U.N. agencies, but it could also be any sort of international development agency,” she says.

Kananura’s drive to take advantage of educational opportunities is partially inspired by her parents, who were not able to pursue graduate degrees.

“They wanted to go to school to further their studies, but because they were refugees, they couldn’t do so,” she says. “So, for me, it’s their dreams through me.”

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