Humphrey Fellowship Program Marks 40th Anniversary With a Call for Global Understanding

Humphrey School hosts conference for current fellows and alumni of the international program
April 12, 2019
Agnes Igoye stands behind a podium speaking to an audience in the Humphrey School atrium.
Agnes Igoye, a 2010-11 Humphrey Fellow, speaks at the 40th anniversary celebration for the program
on April 4, 2019, at the Humphrey School. Photo: Bruce Silcox

A program that began in 1979 with just two dozen people as a tribute to the late Hubert Humphrey has grown into an international network of thousands dedicated to working together for the good of the world.

The Hubert H. Humphrey International Fellowship Program, which is run by the US Department of State, is marking its 40th anniversary this year with a series of alumni reunions and conferences, including one at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis last week that drew more than 75 alumni and current fellows from more than a dozen countries.

“I’m so proud to be the dean of the Humphrey School,” said Dean Laura Bloomberg in her welcoming remarks. “It’s named after someone whose ethics, values, and entire life were dedicated to the kind of work that you all embody—international understanding and collaboration that can bridge the gap of all that divides us.”  

The fellowship program brings mid-career professionals from developing nations to the United States for a year of study, professional experience, and cultural exchange. The Humphrey School is one of 13 colleges and universities that host Humphrey Fellows each year. The program was created by President Jimmy Carter shortly after the 1978 death of former vice president and Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, as a living legacy to Humphrey’s commitment to global understanding.

Similar gatherings have been held in other cities around the world, including Johannesburg, South Africa; Zagreb, Croatia; Panama City, Panama; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Collaboration is a key to success

The gathering in Minneapolis was more than just an anniversary celebration. It was a three-day workshop for Humphrey Fellows to identify pressing challenges in their home countries and develop new skills for addressing those challenges. One consistent theme of the workshop was the fellows’ desire to collaborate and build partnerships with each other to work on common issues.

“We discovered that you go further when you work together,” said Abosede Oyeleye, a 2015-16 Fellow from Nigeria, of her cohort. “We were all from different parts of the world, with different ideologies. I was able to become close to them without judging them by their native region or their tribe, and related to them just based on who they are.”

Oyeleye is a highly accomplished human rights activist in her home country, and received the 2018 University of Minnesota Distinguished Leadership Award for Internationals.

Oyeleye leads a foundation that serves children who are at risk of abuse or trafficking due to war, poverty, and family conflict.

“By coming to the Humphrey School, I discovered how I could address the issue properly,” she said of her fellowship year. “It was a real privilege to come here. The program woke me up and helped me find my voice.”

'We came here to learn something'

Current fellows will finish the program and return home in a few months, with new energy and new ideas for addressing a variety of issues in their countries. One fellow from Iran wants to expand her program that teaches English to students with autism. Another from India hopes to combat substance abuse among youth. A fellow from Zambia wants to strengthen democracy in her country, to promote “leadership that has integrity.”

“All of us are ambitious people and we all have the same aspiration, to bring about change in our society,” said Fellow Anahita Saymidinova of Tajikistan. “We came here to learn something.”

Added Lucy Chivasa of Zimbabwe: “Even in difficult times, all of us believe that being here gives us hope that change is possible, that we can have a brighter future because of all of our efforts.”

Nancy Overholt, executive director of the Humphrey Fellowship Program, said after 40 years, the program is just as important as ever.  

“There will always need to be strategic agility in addressing today’s challenges, which are the same issues that have been around for decades: economic development, extension of health systems, educational outreach to all populations, stewardship of natural resources, and a sustainable world,” she said. “So it’s important to have this program, so people from the US and all Humphrey countries can interact. They can speak the same language about the importance of these issues.”

Since the first group of 24 international fellows arrived in the US in 1979, nearly 6,000 men and women from 162 countries have participated in the Humphrey Fellowship program.