Preparing Deaf Mandela Washington Fellows for Their Program in the United States

Mandela Washington fellows standing on steps with Gallaudet President, Roberta Cordano.
The Fellowship offers a Pre-Institute in American Deaf Culture to incoming Fellows who are Deaf or hard of hearing

The U.S. Department of State-sponsored National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) often receives questions about how colleges and universities can support international Deaf students.  One program that has tackled this challenge in an innovative way is the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship exchange program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. Since 2014, nearly 4,400 young leaders from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa have participated in the Fellowship. The Fellows, between the ages of 25 and 35, are accomplished leaders and have established records of promoting innovation and positive impact in their communities and countries. On average 5% of Fellows in each cohort self-identify as having a disability, including mobility, hearing, vision, and other medical disabilities.

Introducing Fellows to ASL and American Deaf Culture

A lesser-known fact is that the Fellowship offers a Pre-Institute in American Deaf Culture to incoming Fellows who are Deaf or hard of hearing, a concept strongly endorsed by NCDE. This type of collaboration between the U.S. Department of State, IREX, and Gallaudet University, the premier Deaf university in the world, is a great place for other programs and educational institutions to start.

The Fellowship’s Pre-Institute is a week-and-a-half long course in which Fellows study American Sign Language (ASL), learn about Deaf culture, and receive an orientation on what to expect during their Fellowships and their rights as people with disabilities in the United States. Each day of the Pre-Institute is divided into three parts: in the mornings, Fellows attend seminars on ASL and Deaf culture; during the afternoons, they hear guest lectures or partake in cultural activities; and evenings are dedicated to open discussions and networking. Since its inception, Mr. Gregoire Youbara, a lecturer in language, education, and society with Gallaudet University, has planned the Pre-Institute’s curriculum and activities.

“The advantages were far better compared to the service I would have gotten if I was accorded a single Sign Language Interpreter from my own country because of contextual and familiarity issues.” - Binta Badjie, 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumna, The Gambia

Additionally, as part of their work implementing the Fellowship, IREX supports U.S. embassies across the African continent in their efforts to recruit individuals both with and without disabilities. In 2019, they assembled a toolkit for embassies to educate community members with disabilities about the many ways that they would be supported during the Fellowship, including the Pre-Institute. Gallaudet also promoted the Fellowship at the 2019 conference of the World Federation of the Deaf.

After they are accepted to the program, Deaf Fellows are offered the chance to opt into the Pre-Institute: the main requirement is that they must possess some proficiency in ASL or the sign language from their home country. “We sometimes will have Fellows who express reservations like ‘Will my sign language be good enough’, ‘are people going to understand me,’ or ‘what is going to be available,’” says Jennifer Olson, Program Coordinator on the Mandela Washington Fellowship at IREX. “I think the Pre-Institute at Gallaudet really sets them up for success.”

The Genesis of the Pre-Institute

Though the Fellowship has supported participants with disabilities since its inception in 2014, the Pre-Institute for Deaf Fellows came later. Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano and her partner Mary Baremore were based at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis when the university first hosted a Deaf Fellow in the summer of 2015. Mary and Bobbi noticed that “as the only Deaf participant at the Humphrey School, that Fellow was isolated from her peers, despite a welcoming group of other Fellows and faculty and provision of interpreters for all of the courses and events.” The couple invited the Fellow to their home for dinner after encouragement from the U of M Disability Resource Center. They quickly hit it off, and Mary and Bobbi wanted to see if there was a way that they could enable future Deaf Fellows to feel more acclimated.

They would soon have their chance: in January 2016, Bobbi was appointed the President of Gallaudet University. Mary kept her position as Assistant Dean at the Humphrey School, and that year, the University of Minnesota was hosting two Deaf Fellows on campus. To continue their new tradition, Mary and Bobbi invited both Fellows to their house in St. Paul for dinner.

That August, during the annual Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit in Washington, D.C., Mary and Bobbi organized a dinner at Gallaudet University, which brought together 45 people, including 12 Deaf Fellows, members from the local Deaf community and African Diaspora, and representatives from the U.S. government. They also invited Mr. Youbara, who Mary had met at the Summit.

“During that evening, several of us began to talk about how Gallaudet might host future Fellows in some sort of Pre-Institute that would enable them to feel better prepared for their time on campus at their Institutes,” says Mary. “We were all very excited at the prospect of this, and the wheels began turning.”

From Idea to Implementation

From the beginning, The U.S. Department of State and IREX supported the idea of a Pre-Institute, and at the end of 2016, IREX became involved with the planning process. “It was a unique opportunity to bring Fellows in at the start of their program, helping them understand first-hand what support would be available during their Institutes, and allowing time for them to become more comfortable using ASL and working with Interpreters," says Jill Grana, Senior Project Director for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders at IREX.

Over the next few months, the Pre-Institute began to take shape through an exchange of late-night emails, planning meetings, and promotion to the incoming cohort. IREX worked with colleagues at the Department of State to identify resources from the Fellowship’s budget for disability accommodations to cover the Pre-Institute’s expenses, and Gallaudet also provided significant in-kind contributions.

Gallaudet, IREX, and the Department of State all are very proud of their work and continue to stand strongly behind the Pre-Institute, which will hopefully serve to advance the development of young Deaf African leaders for years to come.

“The Pre-Institute helped me cope well with the variations in Sign Language which I would later meet at my Institute at The University of Texas at Austin. For without it, I would have been detached from the rest of the group.” - Ronald Magaji, 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumnus, Nigeria

  • On average, 5% of Mandela Washington Fellows each year self-identify as having a disability, with most requesting accommodations to support their participation in the Fellowship.
  • Though Deaf Mandela Washington Fellows most often come with their country's national sign language, they sometimes possess only a basic knowledge of ASL.
  • Sometimes sign languages from other countries have fragments that are similar to ASL, possibly because of the origin of those who brought sign language to those regions.

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