Our official Independence Day reception hosted over 500 Zimbabwean leaders, dignitaries and diplomats at the Ambassador's residence. It featured a Marine Guard presentation of the colors and great words about the promise of U.S.-Zimbabwean relations. But the true essence of our Declaration of Independence and the nation it built was captured earlier in the week at the graduation ceremony for 31 young Zimbabweans from disadvantaged backgrounds who will start university on full scholarships next month in the United States.
The students come from all over this country and, thanks to the U.S. Student Achievers Program (USAP) run by the Embassy's Public Affairs Section, they all have 4-year scholarships at top American institutions of higher learning. Among the 2011 USAP group, three students are physically disabled, several are the heads of their households, having lost both parents, and others are the children of street and market vendors. One scholarship recipient worked as a gold panner to pay his high school fees and another will be the first Zimbabwean student in a wheelchair to study in the United States.
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai joined Ambassador Charles Ray at the graduation ceremony, instructing the students to make the most of their time in the United States and then bring their new skills back to develop their home country. As parents, friends and teachers cheered, cried and ululated, the Prime Minister and Ambassador presented the students with certificates and joined their student choir in song.
Prime Minister Tsvangirai told the group, "This (current) leadership gap has taken Zimbabwe back to the primitive ages when brother rose up against brother and when education was a preserve for a few rich elite. This is not the Zimbabwe that we envisage.... I am sure that when you finish your studies in the U.S., we will have found a lasting solution to the political crisis we are currently going through."
The U.S. Student Achievers Program (USAP) is an intensive counseling program that assists academically talented but economically disadvantaged students to negotiate and finance the admissions process to obtain scholarships at top U.S. colleges and universities. The scholarships themselves come from the American educational institutions, but the program helps the students to get them. Ten years ago, only the most sophisticated, wealthy Zimbabweans would realistically consider American educational options for their children. But then Rebecca Zeigler-Mano, an American married to a Zimbabwean, joined the U.S. Embassy as Educational Advisor. She wanted to open our doors for the exceptionally bright kids outside the tiny elite communities of Harare and Bulawayo. And she did it.
The U.S. Student Achiever Program (USAP) took on its first group in 1999. Since that time, it has helped over 200 Zimbabwean students earn full scholarships by helping them to research the best academic programs for their talents, prepare for standardized American university entrance exams, and write application essays. The program has now been replicated by 15 other EducationUSA Advising Centers in Embassies around the world, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Latvia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mongolia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia.
One early Zimbabwean USAP student just graduated from Harvard Medical School with plans to return to Africa to work on curable blindness in rural areas. Another exemplary student is working with Engineers without Borders to develop a water filter that removes cholera from tap water. A young USAP female graduate just spent two years assisting Zimbabwean refugees in Johannesburg and is about to begin a PhD in anthropology on how to bring the Zimbabwe diaspora home.
Ambassador Ray summed up the day saying, "Today we celebrate the potential of education to change our nations' futures. This is a ceremony to mark the meeting of merit and opportunity, as well as the power of investing in the capacity of our youth for the future of society." He concluded by saying, "And while we do this, it is also an opportunity to note the impact of positive cooperation between our two nations, Zimbabwe and the United States of America. Education is crucial to the success of both countries. As we share education resources for the benefit of our young citizens, we both grow stronger."
In early July when we Americans celebrate the birth of our nation, we also celebrate the opportunity and better future that our freedoms, richness and creativity offer to committed, young Zimbabweans. These scholarships are a revolution in their lives, which we hope will forever improve the path they follow, for themselves and, hopefully, for their country.