By Andrea Brown Murga, Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Officer, Institute of International Education
“I found myself.” “A defining moment.” “My whole life has changed.” These are the comments I often hear from alumni of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP), a decade-long initiative that provided graduate fellowships to over 4,300 people from some of the most marginalized communities in the developing world. Since 2013, IIE has carried out a longitudinal tracking study that explores the personal and professional trajectories of IFP alumni. Through a combination of surveys and local fieldwork, we’ve reached over 2,000 alumni from all 22 IFP countries.
Over the course of more than three years working on the study, I came to expect to hear stories about life-changing experiences from alumni. They seemed par for the course for a fellowship program that deliberately sought to help people who had been disenfranchised for any number of reasons, such as poverty, ethnicity, or a disability. Earlier this year, however, with the help of local research teams in Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico, our study team began to uncover different stories, ones that show the more subtle and complex ways a fellowship program like IFP can make a difference. These stories are shared in Leaders, Contexts, and Complexities: IFP Impacts in Latin America, our third report from the study, released on November 16.
Take the story of Maria Isabel “Mabel” de Assis, a professor and civil servant from São Paulo. Like many black women in Brazil, Mabel had a hardscrabble upbringing marked by disadvantage. One of 15 siblings raised in a São Paulo suburb stigmatized by violence and poverty, she faced teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, and a lack of educational access before eventually being able to pursue her university studies. Inspired to help others who were experiencing similar challenges, Mabel became deeply involved with the black movement in Brazil over the course of her undergraduate studies, working with organizations like Geledés, a well-known São Paulo NGO, to empower Afro-Brazilian women.
Brazilian IFP alumna Maria Isabel “Mabel” de Assis.
Mabel is exactly the type of person IFP sought to help, not only because she showed academic promise and leadership potential, but because she had demonstrated a commitment to fighting injustice. IFP was designed not only to advance social justice on an individual level, but to also support people who would go on to advance social justice in their home communities.
At first glance, Mabel’s might seem like a typical IFP success story. Since completing her IFP-funded master’s degree in social anthropology at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, she has made significant contributions to government programs designed to help marginalized groups and promote inclusion. In 2016, for example, she helped establish the SOS Racism hotline, an official channel to denounce and investigate cases of racism while also offering social assistance, psychological support and legal referrals.
Yet Mabel’s own words show that her post-IFP work is actually part of a longer trajectory that began before IFP:
"I have dedicated my life to giving voice to Afro-Brazilian women, portraying and sharing their lives, sufferings and achievements with society. IFP’s support during my master’s program allowed me to acquire the theoretical and practical skills I needed to reach even more women, and opened the door for me as a professor."
As Mabel notes, IFP made a difference in her life, but its impact is ultimately rooted in the fact that she was already deeply committed to advancing social justice. This commitment, coupled with her background and grassroots experience, is as important to consider as her graduate training when looking at the social justice gains of IFP alumni.
IFP alumni focus group participants in Ilhéus, Brazil. Local researchers in Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico met with 268 alumni and other stakeholders for the tracking study’s most recent report.
Mabel’s story is indicative of other key findings that emerged from our fieldwork in Latin America, chiefly the importance of home-country contextual factors. In Brazil, the introduction of affirmative action policies and other equity-focused initiatives created an environment that many IFP alumni have been able to leverage to advance their social justice work. But not all alumni have fared so well. Other Brazilian alumni, as well as many alumni in Guatemala and Mexico, have faced significant challenges because of continued discrimination and difficult labor market conditions in their home countries. Taken together, these findings show that home country-context matters.
By sharing both the triumphs and the struggles that alumni have experienced since the conclusion of the program, Leaders, Contexts, and Complexities paints a more nuanced picture than we often see in terms of how international scholarship programs can make a difference in people’s lives. For many alumni, the program was indeed transformational. Nevertheless, it would be reductive to view the program as a panacea. Its strengths lay in selecting participants who, like Mabel, were already predisposed to pursue their commitment to advancing social justice. IFP gave them a leg up in their careers and graduate work, but we must not overlook their existing experience, talents, and drive in the face of serious obstacles.
To mark the release of Leaders, Contexts, and Complexities, IIE’s Latin America and Caribbean Office hosted a report release event and panel discussion on November 16, 2017: