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We Need More Fellowships in Public Affairs Academic Programs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
November 4, 2022

Some academic programs in public affairs are luckier than others because they have more fellowship opportunities to which competent students can apply. The more fellowships there are, the better for both the students; and the academic institutions. Quality higher education is costly, and if it is not fully supported, or subsidized by the government, we may end up enrolling only those who can afford to pay. The other option is to secure fellowships funded either by philanthropists, development agencies, foundations or alumni.

I want to share my nearly twenty-year experience in managing fellowships in public affairs for graduate students at the American University in Cairo, a not-for-profit, yet costly, liberal arts university accredited in the U.S. Fellowships do make a difference, not only in the lives of the selected fellows who benefit greatly from the good quality of education offered; but also, the university programs who benefit much more. The fellows who join our different programs raise the bar and push other students to try to catch up and excel similarly. Moreover, they bring more diversity to our programs, regarding socioeconomic background, gender and specialization.

Over the years I have been responsible for overseeing three different fellowship programs funded by three different donors. Each fellowship had a different edge to it. One fellowship targeted university teaching assistants in public universities in Egypt, looking to pursue a master’s degree in the social studies field they were specialized in, plus a parallel graduate diploma in public policy. The aim was to integrate public policy studies in various disciplines. The second fellowship targeted journalists working in independent media organizations to pursue a degree in media policy, and enable them to better understand and influence policies in that sector. And the third fellowship targeted Egyptian youth with a proven record of engagement in public affairs and offered them an opportunity to choose from among several master’s degree programs, including public policy, public administration and global affairs. Only those excelling academically, and with high levels of leadership skills, got to be selected for the program. The aim was to prepare a competent cadre of young people to shoulder the responsibility of managing their nation.

The teaching assistants coming from public universities were the most hardworking ever. To be hired in a public university in Egypt as a teaching assistant, you need to have ranked top of your class. Once you get hired you are automatically given a tenured position. Once you finish your Ph.D. you have your position as a tenured Assistant Professor and you just need to follow the promotion guidelines and timeframes to move from one rank to another. Even if you do no research whatsoever, and you do not apply for a promotion, you still keep your tenured position as an Assistant Professor. The reason I am explaining all that is to show how investing in young teaching assistants from public universities, and offering them a fellowship to study for a master’s degree at AUC, is worth its while. After finishing their master’s studies, and gaining knowledge, experience and exposure, they all return to their home universities to teach, and the positive impact is multiplied by the thousands of new interactions they have with the students in their lecture halls. Cairo University for example has at least 300 thousand enrolled students across its various faculties. Lecture halls may hold from 150 students at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science to five thousand students at the Faculty of Law.

For the Media Policy Fellowship, the graduate students had the privilege of attending courses from both the Public Policy and Administration Department and the Journalism and Mass Communication Department. The program was implemented during the Arab Spring at a time when there were unprecedented freedoms in the media sector and the graduates were out walking their talk and implementing what they studied in class, without inhibition.

The third fellowship, which is still ongoing, has several edges over the previous two fellowship arrangements, related to selection mechanisms, international exposure and networking opportunities. A strenuous selection process is implemented whereby applicants who meet the GPA, age, language and work experience criteria, are interviewed by a panel of five faculty, and then those short-listed sit for a one-to-one interview with a specialized personality assessment center from the United Kingdom. We ended up with a wonderful group of highly motivated achievers attending our different programs. To enrich their study experience, a one-semester exchange with an international partnering university is covered by the fellowship. Moreover, over ten years, a strong network has been established for both the currently enrolled fellows and the fellowship alumni. Social gatherings, local trips, book clubs and webinars to share their knowledge, are organized periodically. The value of the network created amongst this group cannot be underestimated.

Education is the core foundation for any nation’s development. If quality education is costly, then we should try to make it affordable through more fellowship opportunities. This is the best investment ever.

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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