Blazing the Trail to Transform Education and Local Communities: An Interview with Joan Dassin, Part II

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This is the second piece in our series of posts about the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program (IFP) and its alumni.  We interview Joan Dassin, Executive Director of the International Fellowships Fund (IFF), established in 2001 to implement and oversee IFP, about how access to higher education has the power to not only transform students but entire communities. To read the first part of this interview, see: Blazing the Trail to Transform Education and Local Communities: An Interview with Joan Dassin, Part I.

The program was intended to be ten years long and you are now entering, according to your website, a period of “assessing and disseminating the knowledge generated by its groundbreaking model of leadership development.” What do you hope will come out of this period? How do you hope this information will be used?

I think the key lesson from our program is that it is possible for people who are themselves from marginalized or excluded communities, whatever the reason may be, to succeed in the most the competitive, highest prestige international universities. And afterward, to return home to their communities and make a difference. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Our mandate has been to reach as many people as we can. We have over 4,300 fellows in the program and we have operated at an extremely large scale for a privately funded program. We are among the dozen or so largest fellowship programs in the world. The whole idea was to bring the program into size and scale quickly so that we could test this model. We asked ourselves: “could you in fact reach people who are beyond the reach of other international scholarship programs, would they do well, and would they ultimately be able to return home and apply their knowledge?”

We are now in the wind-down phase of our program. We have always envisioned this as a program that would be limited in time. Fellowship programs consume a lot of resources—not because they are necessarily more expensive than other programs—but because the demand is always there. You’ll never be able to offer as many scholarships as there are people who could use them. So the idea was that over this period of time we would see what sorts of innovations we were able to develop in terms of identifying and supporting these non-traditional students who, in addition to their academic ability, also have a strong commitment to their communities and have demonstrated capacity for leadership.

How do you see this information that you’ve collected being used in the future?

As we are now in the wind-down phase we are collecting documents and trying to capture the historical memory of the individual fellows, as well as the practices and procedures of the program. For example, how were we able to recruit indigenous people from Brazil when they live many hours away from the nearest city? Or, what kind of training is useful to prepare people for their graduate program? What sorts of university programs are most useful for students interested in development? How do you build a global network of universities?

We work in 22 countries around the world and, even though we have a set of global parameters, the program is extremely varied, depending a lot on the local conditions. We are working hard with our local partners to capture local innovations and to communicate them to other programs so that they too can extend the reach of what they do.

How will you make sure that your fellows continue to be supported beyond the end of the project?

We are still operating as a network of organizations. We provide support to our local partner organizations which then remain in contact with their fellows. It’s a lot easier to track 300 fellows from India as a locally based Indian organization, than it is to track 3,000 fellows from around the world. So the decentralization principle is still very important to us at this stage of the program. Once we have completed our activities it will be a challenge to maintain contact with all of these fellows but what we are building is a network of alumni associations. First we are building country-based alumni associations and then, second, we are building ways for them to connect with one another. At the end of the day, when you bring these people together, they are quite disparate in terms of their intellectual pursuits or the kinds of development projects that they work on—we have environmentalists, natural resource management, public health, education, human rights and so on—but what brings them all together is a strong commitment to making sure these issues are addressed locally and globally. We feel that it is important to develop ways for the fellows to keep in touch with each other.

Already we have a website that allows them to keep in touch. In the several years remaining in the project it will become an increasingly big priority for us. We are really going to address the question of how to maintain this community. The best tools that we have are virtual tools and of course there are still people outside the reach of the internet, it is an increasingly useful tool. The picture is much different than it was ten years ago.

Based on your experience with this project, where would you like to see more global funding directed?

I think the key lesson from our program is that it is possible for people who are themselves from marginalized or excluded communities, whatever the reason may be, to succeed in some of the most the competitive international universities in the world. And then afterward, they can return home to their communities and make a difference.

I think that what I would like to see is more attention given to questions of equity in higher education. It’s not really just a question of increasing enrollment in these universities. Many countries around the world worry about investing in higher education because they say people who benefit from this kind of opportunity won’t go back home. Or they will go into some other work to make money without working to build the kind of responses to day to day problems that require higher education. We feel we can say with some assurance that in very diverse parts of the world, whether its Chile or Vietnam or Tanzania, that there are so many talented people who are eager to make a change, to improve outcomes in health, and education and environment in their own community, that lack the means to do it. So we would like to see more intentional programs and local enforcement going towards people with that kind of profile.

And because these people are invested in their communities and have a lot at stake, they return with their new educations to make a difference. They don’t fly in and fly out. They live there. Their stake is intergenerational in terms of what they are prepared to sacrifice. So it’s very exciting to see.

What is also exciting to see is that in this day and age, we are still finding people who are pioneers. They might be the first woman, and then you fill in the blanks: the first woman in her family to get an advanced degree, the first person in his or her region to travel abroad, the first person in a particular field to bring that knowledge back to their country. Almost all of our fellows have that kind of pioneer profile. So while it’s still, at this point, hard to say what kind of impact that will have, we think that on balance we are going to have a lot of people opening new avenues to new solutions to problems that are just beginning to assert themselves and be understood.

The idea of the firsts and what it means to have blazed the trail for people in your community and the demonstration effect are a big aspect of IFP. While fellowships per say are inherently individual, and about the individual, the communities that these people are connected to are the ultimate beneficiaries. And we are starting to see lots of evidence of this occurring.

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