Op-Ed: Sustain funding for the Banaa program

In 2008, GW took a chance on a talented student and a war-torn nation by creating a pilot scholarship program for a Sudanese refugee.

Makwei Mabioor Deng, the first Banaa scholarship recipient, has excelled at GW and is preparing for a career in service to the newly-established state of South Sudan.

With the program expanding to other universities, it’s clear that GW’s initial investment was a resounding success.

While GW students are doing the difficult and creative work of fundraising and facilitating the Banaa candidate selection process, the program is at risk of slipping away from GW.

University President Steven Knapp’s administration said it will only fund half of the cost for the next Banaa student after Deng graduates.

It’s not too late to save the program.

With the Clinton Global Initiative University summit taking place on our campus in the spring, University administrators have a perfect opportunity to affirm their commitment.

Clinton Global Initiative University was one of Banaa’s first financial supporters, and President Bill Clinton himself has honored Deng and Banaa co-founders on stage at Clinton Global Initiative events in 2008 and 2009.

Knapp should seize that moment and announce the following: a fully-financed Banaa scholar for enrollment in 2012, an annual visit for Banaa scholars at other universities to GW and a sustained fundraising campaign to support the investment.

This would help build the program by signaling to other interested universities that the flagship institution is committed. It could ultimately help to define a model of the 21st century university as a catalyst for global social progress.

Banaa – named for an Arabic word meaning “to build, found or create” – is unique, not only because it seeks to empower some of the poorest and most marginalized people in an impoverished region, but also because it has been designed and administered entirely by students.

Volunteers from our own campus recruited applicants, verified credentials and built a support network for arriving students. They approached dozens of government and nonprofit workers in Sudan to find potential applicants. They created a modified version of the Common Application to probe applicants’ commitments to attaining peace and development. They created a “how-to” kit to help students on campuses around the country pitch the program to their administrators.

Most importantly, these volunteers crafted a long-term vision. Banaa was designed to empower dozens of talented but impoverished young people with technical skills to serve their communities and conflict-resolution frameworks to forge peace.

Deng is living out this vision. After the destruction of his village when he was 8 years old, he lived for 16 years in Kakuma Refugee Camp near the Kenyan-South Sudanese border. There, he won a scholarship to attend secondary school and took it upon himself to produce the world’s first Dinka language textbook, a project he completed and published while at GW.

Inviting another Banaa scholar would have an immense impact on campus, as it would allow students to build relationships with real survivors of conflict, bring fascinating new perspectives to the classroom and showcase GW’s global leadership in the fields of peace and development.

The writers, Jamie Fisher-Hertz, Ryan Brenner and Kelsey Lax are interns for Banaa.

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