Wednesday, 21 September 2016

From Ignorance to Stardom (My Mandela Washington Fellowship Story)

So, it’s already time to apply for the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship. Around this time last year (2015), I got an email from one of my mentors informing me about the opening of the 2016 Application. Truth be told, up until I received that email I knew virtually NOTHING about YALI nor the Mandela Washington Fellowship. I was living in the dark. Knowledge is truly light and that email was the light I needed.
Dr Teresa is one person I respect so much. She must have seen something in me to have taken the stress to send me that email, so I decided to click on the link in the email she sent me. I saw information about YALI, I saw a link to the YALI Network Face2Face group on Facebook, I saw the YALI LEARNS online courses, I read about the YALI Regional Learning Centres (RLCs) and I also saw the Mandela Washington Fellowship. “What a beautiful initiative”, I thought.
Reading about the Mandela Washington Fellowship gave me chills. But, I was first discouraged by the huge competition that surrounds it and the slim chance of being shortlisted. I also had my initial doubts about fairness and discrimination. Reading further, I saw Adepeju Jaiyeoba's (a 2014 Mandela Fellow from Nigeria) picture with President Obama. She looked radiant and super-excited in the picture. Something told me it couldn’t have been Photoshop. Lol! President’s Obama’s gallant posture in the picture reminded me of the American values of merit and due-process. Now, my fears are gone. “I am going to apply for this thing”, I murmured to myself.
True to my latest conviction, the Mandela Washington Fellowship, like every other YALI Program, is executed through a highly-coordinated, merit-based, gender-balanced, fair process. There is no discrimination based on religion, political-affiliation, sexual orientation or physical disability. The application process may seem tedious and tiring, but every bit of it is rewarding. The questions asked will reveal your inner self to you and you’ll become better, even as you answer the questions sincerely.

These are from my personal experience and observations.

1. BE SURE YOU ARE ELIGIBLE: Mandela Washington Fellowship is open to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. I advise you double-check your country is amongst the participating countries. Also, it a programme for “YOUNG” African Leaders so the age range is 25 -35. However, outstanding applicants less than 25 years old are usually considered. Read up full eligibility requirements on If you meet all the eligibility criteria, you must then importantly CONVINCE yourself that you have the stuff to make it. If you can’t convince yourself, you can’t convince the person reading your application. Read about past fellows, follow their projects (if related to yours), find out what they do and tell yourself “I can do this”. Your mindset and self-belief will ultimately reveal itself in your application and at the interviews.

2. FIGURE OUT YOUR BIG IDEA & STORY: your big idea forms the fabric/backbone of your application. You must be able to communicate your major achievement as a leader. YALI MWF is looking forward to building upon your previous success in your local community by exposing you to tools, people and opportunities for global leverage. Streamline your numerous achievements and years of experience into one or two related BIG IDEA(S). Once you are clear about your BIG IDEA, now it’s time to put together your story. Make your story sooooooooo clear that the reader can “see & feel” WHAT you are passionate about, WHY you are passionate about it, HOW you have demonstrated your passion, the RESULTS you have achieved so far, the CHALLENGES you have faced doing that, HOW you have overcome those challenges, WHAT you need to do next and HOW this fellowship will help you do better at it. More importantly, your story MUST show the LINK between what you are doing and a global issue/challenge the United States is trying to solve or interested in solving. This, more than any other thing will determine if you will make it to the semi-finals.

3. CHOOSE YOUR TRACK APPROPRIATELY: the fellowship has three tracks, Business & Entrepreneurship, Civic Leadership and Public Management tracks. A new Energy track was introduced as a pilot-test in 2016 and should hopefully be sustained this year. Be sure you understand what each track stands for and identify the track that best suits your work/big idea. Getting this right will make your application more precise and your story more focused, it will also help the admin connect faster to your project.

4. BE ORIGINAL & SINCERE: Hey! This is where honesty and integrity comes in. You want to be sure that: (i) the work/big idea is yours or you played a major role in it (ii) You put together your application by yourself. These two are very essential, because if you lie about some important stuff, it will eventually be found out. Never consider giving your Username/Password to a past fellow. That negates PRIVACY rules and the standard of INTEGRITY expected of a Mandela Fellow. You may get help by seeking for advice, but not to the point of giving someone else your entire application to work on. Haba! The US Department of States has its way of finding out what they need to know about you. Why lie? The Mandela Washington Fellowship is more than just travelling to the US. It’s your ticket to a life-long relationship with the US government and plenty of awesome people in the YALI Network. Just be confident and straight forward. You’ll make it.

5. JUSTIFY YOUR SPOT WITHOUT BEING PUSHY: Choosing just a thousand fellows out of over 50,000 applications is a difficult task. In Nigeria, the stakes are even higher. In 2016, it was 100 out of 10,000+ submitted applications. As you can imagine, that is a very huge competition. This is why your BIG IDEA/STORY/ WORK must be highly convincing without you sounding desperate. Don’t try to impress or push the reader by stating too many achievements and all your village titles. Also ensure that your commitment to return to Africa is reflected from your application. The fellowship seeks to INVEST in you, so you can INVEST in others. Make sure your BIG IDEA/STORY and VALUE PROPOSITION is razor sharp and all the small pieces fall in line with the big picture you are trying to paint. You can always find a balance.

6. DISPLAY YOUR AWESOMENESS: don’t be afraid to brag about your success. However, while doing all that, acknowledge the support and help you received from other people. That is what makes a LEADER awesome. Too many good people apply for the fellowship but only the GREAT get selected. Your greatness comes out in your TEAM SPIRIT. This may include acknowledgement of advice from friends, team members’ help or the community support you received on your journey to success etc. As you project your success story, use more of “We” than “I”. This will reflect your ability to work and lead a team.

7. PROOF-READ YOUR APPLICATION: Grammar ooo! Grammar! There is no English Language test or examination required to qualify for the fellowship. But, it is expected that you should be able to write, speak and communicate in simple, basic and error-free English. This will reflect in your application. Read, read, I say read your application again, to be sure it is almost error-free, before submitting. Consider this as part of your first impression.

8. SAVE A COPY: It’s okay to edit on the go. You can save the questions on your local drive to answer as you go and come back to fill the application when you have given each of the questions the best shot. Also, save a copy of your work before or after submission. If you make it to the semi-finals, you’ll find this tip very helpful while preparing for your interview.

9. DON’T RUSH AND DON’T BE LATE: the application window will be open for a few weeks and it’s not a fastest-finger first thing. If you need to take your time, please do within the application window. You shouldn’t submit anything less than your best in the name of “getting there first”. You don’t have to rush and you don’t need to be late. Just make sure you are giving it your best shot, while leaving some time before the application deadline.

10. FORGET ABOUT IT: Your peace of mind is paramount. Meanwhile, Olympics isn’t always to win, but to participate. No amount of your worry will hasten the application calendar or increase your chances of being shortlisted. After you have submitted your application, take a cup of coffee or zobo or kunnu or whatever your heart desires at the moment and forget about it. If you know how to pray, do so, but don’t mistake hope with worry.
Let this post be the light that you need to go out and do great exploits.
Go and submit your winning application here:
See you at the semi-finals.

Yours truly.
2016 Mandela Fellow | Curator, #TEDxIsaleGeneral | Software Evangelist | Public Speaker | Author |