Last spring, Hena Patel arrived at the U.S. Embassy thinking she had signed up for a friendly high school debate. By the end of the day, she left with a fellowship in the United States and the opportunity of a lifetime. Each year, students like Hena, from 35 European nations, are selected to join ten American students in the Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellowship Program. The Fellowship involves a month-long, summer program designed to promote relationships among European and American youth and encourage them to work together to solve real world problems. It was created in an effort to foster the same spirit of tolerance and ingenuity Benjamin Franklin once had, qualities which led him to become one of America’s Founding Fathers.
To participate in the program, the U.K. application process is a bit different from other countries. Over the last several years, select schools have been invited to apply. Students who are interested represent their schools in a debate hosted at the U.S. Embassy. Groups consist of four students, two from one school against a pair from a rival school. Each pair is given a position to take on a range of issues from social justice to foreign policy. James Heale, the 2013 U.K. recipient, recalls being impressed by the wit, passion, and insight his peers brought to their arguments. Upon the culmination of the event, one individual winner is chosen by a panel of judges to fly to an American university and partake in the Fellowship program
Hena was selected for the 2014 Fellowship at Wake Forest University. She describes her arrival as nothing short of surreal. Students were lined-up and ready to welcome her with broad smiles and an uncanny amount of Krispy Kreme donuts. In a month, the students would refer to themselves as an extended family, writing each other letters before flying back to their native countries. During their stay, they had bonded over impromptu jam sessions at host family homes, heated World Cup games, and pick-up football games in the lush university lawns. To complete their immersion in American culture, students were sent to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to learn more about society and politics.
The program itself is packed with captivating seminars and educational activities to promote social cooperation and involvement. It concentrates on three courses: one focused on analysing and comparing national constitutions, the other on citizenship and conflict, and the last on social entrepreneurship, the program’s flagship course. At the end of the Fellowship, each student crafts and proposes a plan to tackle a problem within their society in a self-sustaining way. These initiatives are to be implemented upon their return.
Currently, school applications for the 2015 Fellowship are being received and reviewed. The debates will take place March 13th with an opening ceremony followed by the discussions. For Hena, the Fellowship largely helped grant her admission to the University of Oxford. Not only that, her social entrepreneurship initiative was put into action and currently helps empower young girls in London schools. Likewise, each of the other Fellowship recipients have succeeded in changing and improving their communities in their own unique way.