Study tracks how scholarships promote social change

How effective can scholarship programmes be in preparing and encouraging individual students to return to their communities and promote social justice?

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The 10-year Alumni Tracking Study by the Institute of International Education (IIE) for the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program (IFP) is unprecedented in scale and scope.

By studying the link between higher education and social justice and the effect that higher education can have on marginalised populations and leadership, it aims to provide a better understanding of the long-term impact of international higher education scholarship programmes that seek to promote social change.

So far the study has collected data from more than 2,100 graduate Fellows of the IFP worldwide.

The fourth report in the series, Transformational Leaders and Social Change: IFP impacts in Africa and the Middle East, released in September, focuses on qualitative fieldwork carried out by research teams in four locations: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Palestine. Together these countries are home to 699 fellows, representing 16% of the global IFP population.

According to Mirka Martel, project director of the tracking study and head of monitoring, evaluation and learning at IIE, each fellow has faced “significant challenges in their past and in their home communities stemming from discrimination, economic hardship and disability. Their uniting bond is their continuing work in social justice and activism and their deep commitment following IFP to their home country and community”.

To understand the impact on the personal and professional trajectories of IFP alumni in varying local contexts in the Middle East and Africa, researchers spent three years tracking down and interviewing fellows and those close to them to understand how the IFP made a difference in their lives.

Martel said the findings speak not only to the graduate fellows’ personal commitment to social justice but also to their “unwavering promise to give back to their communities through professional work or volunteerism”.

Strengthened commitment

According to Judith Kallick and Andrea Brown Murga, authors of the IIE report, 91% of the respondents from Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine and South Africa to a 2015 survey said they returned to their home countries with a strengthened commitment to social justice, thereby reflecting the Ford Foundation’s key objective with the IFP programme to promote social change in the developing world.

But the report also highlights the important role that fellowships had on women and the example that its transparent selection process improved perception in Africa and the Middle East of international scholarship opportunities.

“In countries where nepotism is common, IFP stood out in providing fair opportunities for fellows to participate in the programme, an important consideration for other implementers offering fellowship programmes in the region,” Martel noted.

Emerging social justice leaders

From 2001 to 2013 at a cost of US$420 million, in the single largest programme in its history, the Ford Foundation has provided graduate fellowships to 4,305 emerging social justice leaders from 22 countries in the developing world. Those selected were drawn from marginalised and disadvantaged communities who have experienced difficulty in accessing higher education.

Of the 128 IFP fellows in Kenya, 48% were women and 30% came from the Rift Valley, a region with high numbers of marginalised communities. The majority studied in the United States (69%), with the United Kingdom hosting 18% of fellows and Australia 7%. Only 1% of fellows stayed in Kenya to pursue graduate programmes.

In Nigeria 41% of the 174 fellows came from the Muslim and largely economically disadvantaged North; 43% were women, and 9% were fellows with disabilities. The majority studied outside Africa: 53% in the United Kingdom and 40% in the United States.

Twenty-eight per cent of the 147 fellows in Palestine came from refugee camps: 44% were women, and 7% had disabilities. While 46% of Palestinian fellows remained in Palestine or in Middle Eastern and North African countries, 34% studied in the United Kingdom and 15% in the United States.

In South Africa selection focused on those from historically disadvantaged racial backgrounds created by apartheid. Of the 260 fellows, 40% came from rural areas, 35% from low-income suburbs or townships, and 50% were women. A large number (43%) of fellows studied in South African universities, while 31% studied in the United Kingdom and 23% in the United States and Canada.

Overall, the number of alumni with disabilities ranged from 9% in Nigeria to 2% in South Africa, and included people with visual impairments, physical disabilities and people with albinism.

Enhanced professional life, leadership

In addition to strengthening their commitment to social justice, the majority of alumni also said the fellowship had enhanced both their personal and professional lives.

“Ninety-two per cent of respondents from Africa and the Middle East said the fellowship had given a boost to their academic credentials, and 90% felt it had boosted their professional reputation. Grounded in deeper knowledge of their fields, along with advocacy and fundraising skills, many alumni and stakeholders reported increased effectiveness and leadership,” the authors said.

Most alumni experienced upward mobility in their careers and the 2015 global survey results showed that 74% of survey respondents from Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine and South Africa found employment following the fellowship.

Many alumni also continued their academic studies “with 37% respondents from Africa and the Middle East reporting that they had pursued or were pursuing an additional degree or certification following their IFP fellowship, most often a PhD”.

A large majority of alumni (89%) drawn from Kenya, Nigeria, Palestine and South Africa reported being able to make improvements in their organisations as a result of their IFP experience.

“Alumni have revitalised existing organisations and programmes, have created new ones, and are promoting social justice, learning, and leadership across levels and positions,” the report says.

New initiatives

Some alumni launched new organisations and programmes of their own. “A Kenyan alumnus from Nairobi’s largest slum launched a foundation to cover the school fees of children from the city’s slums and has already supported 120 high school students. And in South Africa, an alumnus has launched a number of programmes and campaigns aimed at youth and community development, computer literacy, public health awareness and the arts.”

Many alumni indicated that they became more committed in contributing to social change in their communities because of their IFP experiences and the expectations IFP instilled in them to give back to their communities.

A South African alumnus created an app linking the unemployed to work options while another provided services addressing mental health, HIV/AIDS education, gender-based violence and establishing a sexual assault assistance line in deaf communities.

“In Palestine, some alumni introduced new or innovative concepts, such as environmental protection or animal rights, not previously recognised as directly beneficial or important for their communities. Another, the first in his university to hold a PhD in renewable energy, developed a unique technique for turning cow dung into green energy,” the authors say.

Examining the societal impacts of IFP alumni, the report found that the alumni in Africa and the Middle East have reached almost every sphere of government, “influencing policies, plans and programmes at local, regional and national levels”.

Many alumni have also made their mark in academia, using their universities as springboards to publish influential research or creating new academic departments that expand local capacity and knowledge in areas that affect social justice.

“The skills, knowledge and enhanced commitment they acquired through IFP were the foundation for their work, inspiring societal change as an outcome of broadening individual and community change.

“A few South African alumnae have been passionately fighting for the decolonisation of education through their university’s policies, which has spread to other universities around the country.”

Overcoming conflict

In Palestine, two alumni “were able to overcome tensions between governance in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and write a joint report about health issues in both territories, reflecting their notion that conflict should not affect medical care”.

A Nigerian fellow, using the skills he learned during IFP, negotiated with oil companies on the environmental effects of gas flares. The alumnus “has influenced the oil companies to give a scholarship to some of the community members” and the alumnus was appointed as the community’s representative in the federal-level technical negotiating committee working on safer gas flaring practices.

As well as providing an assessment for the Ford Foundation of the IFP’s effectiveness, the report has some useful take-home advice for other organisations and institutions running higher education scholarship programmes.

First is the need for good management, transparency and accountability. “In countries that continue to struggle with corruption and nepotism, scholarship programmes that have transparent and accountable selection criteria and processes can help break the cycle and serve as important examples of equitable access to higher education.”

Second is the need to address high expectations and re-entry challenges.

“Higher education scholarship programmes implemented in developing countries … need to be aware of the re-entry challenges alumni may face. Expectations add a layer to this complexity, as the pressures of those around the scholarship recipient may further exacerbate the situation. Programmes must consider the re-entry mechanisms and anticipate the economic and social realities that recipients will return to after their scholarship programme ends.”

Selection and validation of women

One of the most interesting findings was the impact of selection and validation of women. Although both women and men were surprised at being selected for the IFP after years of discrimination and frustration with their lack of learning opportunities, women expressed “an even deeper level of validation and self worth” related to their acceptance as a fellow.

In Nigeria the IFP team selected fellows from a conservative part of the country where women lacked education and lived in extreme poverty. One fellow who struggled to get an education as a child went on to earn a PhD in the UK and advocated for the state to build a school for female street children and include women in the community leadership where they could make decisions on behalf of other women.

A village leader said: “We would have still been living in the stone ages because we didn’t know the relevance of a woman… we would have been seeing them as another creature that should be used and useless; we have seen how useful they can be.”

The evaluation teams in Nigeria and South Africa observed that in workshops where the majority were men, the women were the most vocal group, in spite of men traditionally dominating public discussions.

The fears in some communities that there would be negative effects for women who studied abroad were assuaged when IFP alumnae became role models on their return, encouraging other women.

In Palestine one alumna was the first female from her village to travel outside of the country and now she has “started hearing about girls who have convinced their families to allow them to study outside the country using me as a successful example”. She said: “I, unintentionally, have contributed to breaking this negative barrier or social norm.”