Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

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

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

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

Article excerpt

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.


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. …

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