In 2019, Angelique from Rwanda joined the ranks of Ashinaga USA alumni when she graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in International Relations.

Ashinaga USA At 5

When Ashinaga USA was established five years ago, on December 11, 2014, the newly created North American hub for the Ashinaga Africa Initiative did not yet have office space or staff, and there were only three Ashinaga students at universities and colleges in the United States.

Half a decade later, three Ashinaga USA alumni have earned undergraduate degrees, and Ashinaga has gone on to formalize its work with African countries into the Ashinaga Africa Initiative (AAI), an academic leadership program that aims to contribute to Sub-Saharan Africa’s expanding role in global development through increasing access to international higher education. Now, there are 184 AAI scholars around the world, 22 of whom are energetically pursuing their intellectual passions at universities and colleges throughout the US. Over the last five years, Ashinaga USA has worked with 21 different institutions of higher education in North America to admit and support students from 18 different African nations.

The Ashinaga USA University Relations Team communicates year-round with institutions of higher education through online meetings and phone calls, and through visits to campuses as far north as Maine and as far west as California. These schools, among the best in the world, specialize in engineering, the sciences, and technology as well as the liberal arts. Thanks to the work of this team, university and college partners have provided $4.4 million in scholarship support to date, a testament also to the exceptional quality and hard work of our scholars.

Over Ashinaga USA’s first five years, the work of a dozen staff members and interns, assisted by countless volunteers (including Ashinaga USA board members and North American members of the Kenjin-Tatsujin International Advisory Council) and based out of two different offices (first Washington, and now New York), has helped to achieve all of these impressive results over a relatively short time period. Above all, the determination and grit of each of the Ashinaga USA AAI scholars themselves, navigating new lives while studying far from home at some of the world’s foremost universities and colleges, has been essential to the program’s success. And there will be many more such stories to come.

In 2018, Ashinaga USA proudly celebrated its first-ever college graduates. Daniel from Uganda (left, with former staff member) graduated from Pepperdine University in California with a degree in Integrated Marketing Communication and a minor in Nonprofit Management. Hilda, also from Uganda, graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts with a degree in African Studies and Government.

But, as noted, it did not all start out that way. More than ten months passed from the creation of Ashinaga USA to a reception that officially launched the organization’s first office in Washington, D.C., an event attended by Yoshiomi Tamai, founder and President of Ashinaga in Japan, and the ambassadors to the US from both Japan and Uganda.

Another ten months passed before the first full cohort of six students attended an Orientation Tsudoi in August 2016, inaugurating an annual tradition that has continued each August ever since. Tsudoi have been an integral part of Ashinaga’s activities in Japan since the Ashinaga movement began more than 40 years ago. At these gatherings, students who previously did not know each other gather for several days of bonding, cultural connection, and contemplation.

At Ashinaga USA’s Orientation Tsudoi, incoming scholars work with staff and current AAI scholars on better understanding American culture, preparing for university and life on campus, and promoting leadership, in addition to receiving help with some of the logistical tasks of moving to a new country, such as opening bank accounts and purchasing cell phone plans. A highlight of these Orientation Tsudoi is the opportunity for the students to hear from guest speakers from a wide variety of professions.

The success of Orientation Tsudoi led to the establishment of an additional Leadership Tsudoi – several days of team building, leadership development, and reflection among all current Ashinaga USA scholars –sometimes held in winter and sometimes in spring. These gatherings provide the opportunity for scholars to bond, to share stories and memories from the school year, and to create new ones together. As they begin their journey with Ashinaga, each of the new AAI scholars is assigned to a member of Ashinaga USA’s Student Relations Team, who will support the scholar’s personal, professional, and academic development throughout their time studying in the US. The wide range of assistance provided by the Student Relations Team includes work with the scholar to develop an Ashinaga Proposal, in which the scholar identifies a problem – as well as a potential solution – in their home community, country, or continent. This allows AAI scholars to remain connected to the African continent during their studies in North America, and to improve their research, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills in a real-world context.

22 Ashinaga Africa Initiative scholars are currently students at universities and colleges throughout the US, including Alex (middle) from Kenya, who is studying Political Science at Clark University in Massachusetts, and Tsion from Ethiopia, an aspiring Biomedical Sciences major at SUNY Plattsburgh in New York.

In addition to these key activities that focus on helping scholars to thrive at their schools in North America, Ashinaga USA’s field of operations have developed a global focus. Because the mission of the AAI is for scholars to return to their home countries after graduation to make a positive impact in their field or community in Sub-Saharan Africa, the AAI endeavors to provide each student an opportunity to spend at least one summer during college in an internship on the African continent, so they can continue to build their own professional network and gain practical skills. In recent years, with assistance from staff, a number of Ashinaga USA scholars have taken advantage of this opportunity. These summer opportunities in Africa have included a variety of internships – with an engineering company in Rwanda, a co-working space in Nigeria, an NGO focused on women and children in Zimbabwe, and a university in Rwanda – as well as the chance to research the education system in Kenya.

Closer to home, for the past three years Ashinaga USA has participated in activities that allow scholars to connect with the Japanese heritage of the Ashinaga movement. Students have helped to staff the organization’s table at the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival hosted by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C. – the largest one-day celebration of Japanese culture in the United States, attended by thousands; and Ashinaga USA scholars and staff have played host to visiting Japanese students through the Kakehashi Project, a youth exchange program between Japan and North America sponsored by Youth For Understanding USA.

One of the most heartening results of all this activity has been the way that AAI scholars in the US, consistent with the goal of the AAI, have emerged as leaders. They have made presentations at important conferences such as the meeting of Ashinaga’s Kenjin-Tatsujin International Council in Japan, and have helped to organize the first Africa Summit at a major American university that brought talented individuals from all over Africa, both from the continent and around the world, to engage with other students and professionals from the African diaspora. Ashinaga USA looks forward to the next five years, as the numbers and accomplishments of its scholars continue to increase.