Imagine you’re a young professional, embarked on a career that is attracting notice and improving people’s lives in your country, and along comes an offer to leave family, friends and job for 12 to 18 months to take a fellowship in the United States. What do you say?
The answer is “yes” for the dozens of future leaders from scores of countries who each year accept the invitation to join a U.S.-backed network called the Atlas Corps and lend their talents to nonprofits and other organizations that tackle important social problems.
They become part of a network that now numbers 600 people from 89 countries who return home with new enthusiasm and ideas to pursue entrepreneurial missions with a social bent.
“I hope to use the knowledge, connections and deeper understanding … to fight for women’s rights back in Russia,” says Marina Bulavskaia, 27, of Moscow. She spent 18 months at Spark, a San Francisco nonprofit that works to improve girls’ and women’s lives.
She spoke at the State Department during an event showcasing more than 90 current fellows. Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce welcomed the group. Atlas Corps was started in 2006 by a former U.S. diplomat. The State Department helps fund it, while partners such as the American Red Cross, United Way, IBM, Microsoft and Deloitte host the fellows.
Iman Ahmed, 30, a community development professional in Gaza, is a tech fellow with Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. She encountered difficulties getting out of Gaza to start her fellowship.
It is hard for young Palestinians to find work, but “with knowledge and information technology tools, you can utilize your skills online and still make income,” she says.
Nino Ben Haj Yahia, 27, a co-founder of Tunisia’s first social innovation hub, was convinced by an American friend he could do even more with skills gained from Atlas Corps.
A fellowship at PYXERA Global, a Washington-based development organization, was “exactly what I needed … to be in the front lines against inequalities in Tunisia,” he says.
Ingrid Xhafa, 27, who works on socioeconomic development in Albania, was a fellow with the Peace Development Fund in San Francisco.
She met Silicon Valley executives and academics, but says the biggest benefit was connecting with “the amazing human beings” of Atlas Corps who want to fix “everything that doesn’t go right.”
Alexandra Jimenez, a human-rights coordinator in Mexico City, did antipoverty work for Southwest Solutions in Detroit.
Jimenez, 35, said it was hard for her to leave behind her work at one of Mexico’s largest human-rights organizations. But now, after seeing how the Detroit agency helps poor families improve their lives, “I want to start my own community-development business,” she says.