The following is a guest post by Anne Glusker, director of the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program.
The U.S. State Department has recently decided to cut all funds for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program for fiscal year 2013. Born out of the peace process in Northern Ireland in which former Sen. George Mitchell played a pivotal role, the Mitchell program at its inception was intended to strengthen and modernize the relationship between the island of Ireland and the United States. But the scholarship has taken on a life of its own and has become about much more. It has evolved into a sort of laboratory for future American leaders and is now just as much about leadership development as it is about relations with Ireland. In just 12 years and with almost 150 alumni, the scholarship has come to be mentioned in the same breath as the Rhodes and the Marshall, quite a feat for such a young program. And given that the program’s operating budget of less than $500,000 annually represents just .08 percent of the budget of a single State Department bureau, Educational and Cultural Affairs, one has to wonder just what kind of signal State is trying to send.
The State Department says the reason it cut support for the Mitchell program had nothing to do with the worth of the program but rather with shifting global priorities, which have moved away from Europe and toward more in-the-headlines trouble spots such as the Middle East. And of course, no one would argue that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Middle East is more important than ever – both for American foreign policy and for public diplomacy initiatives such as educational exchanges. But whatever changes have taken place in foreign policy priorities in recent years, priorities in education are an entirely different story.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a big point of mentioning just over a year ago, only a scant 1 percent of all American students study abroad, and the statistics on the number of Americans who hold passports is famously low. Europe has a long tradition of being a comfortable destination for American young people heading overseas for the first time – whether to study or to travel. Students from the United States who might be hesitant to study in a non-English-speaking country will feel at home in a place where they can speak their own language. And unlike England or Scotland, the island of Ireland offers the rich history and lessons — both in academe and in society at large – of its recent experience of the Troubles. So while the administration may want to encourage study abroad and educational exchanges in areas of the world that are currently of greater strategic interest than Europe (see The Chronicle’s recent article on the disconnect between the administration’s desire for greater numbers of American students to study abroad in China and the reality, with one of the primary stumbling blocks being language acquisition), the reality is that a program such as the Mitchell is a valuable and important way of getting American students to leave our shores.
Mitchell scholars receive a fully financed year of post-graduate study at any of 11 institutes of higher learning on the island, in any field. While many applicants are drawn by the island’s history to study conflict resolution, peace-building, human-rights law, or transitional justice, they may choose to concentrate on anything from neuroscience to music therapy. Because the scholarship emphasizes leadership and public service on a par with academic excellence, it is a given that Mitchell scholars, no matter their discipline, are more than likely to go on to a life of showing the way and a career of giving back.
After their year in Ireland and Northern Ireland, Mitchell scholars have ended up in places as varied as Malawi, Honduras, and Qatar, doing work ranging from health care to development to education to service in the U.S. military. Although the Mitchell was conceived in the aftermath of the Irish peace process, and Ireland remains very much the program’s spiritual and physical home, the program’s reach, effect, and influence now extends way beyond that small island on the edge of Europe.
The State Department would do well to reverse course on this ill-advised decision and restore a low-cost, highly productive leadership lab with global reach.