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The Value of Study Abroad: Learning to Ask the Right Questions

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"Who are the most marginalised people and how can we bring them in from the margins to be a part of decision-making?"

That's the question Marie Mulholland, a former leader of the Belfast Women's Network, asked me as we sat across from one another at a Dublin coffee shop in July 2006. It's the question I've been asking myself ever since.

I was interviewing Marie as part of research I was conducting to complete my master's degree in Equality Studies at University College Dublin. A degree that was made possible by the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program, which sends 12 Americans to the island of Ireland each year for post-graduate degrees in partnership with the U.S. State Department and the Irish and Northern Ireland governments.

Today, I ask the same question from my perch as the director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.

It may seem strange that six years after my time in Ireland I still hear the echo of that question every day in my efforts to create greater economic opportunity for struggling families. But when I talk to my fellow Mitchell Scholars, I realize that it's actually not all that strange.

All of us who have participated in this program know the impact it has had on our leadership development and on our worldview. All of us have had our own Marie Mulholland moment, an experience from our time on the island that informs our work, whether it is serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan, conducting biomedical research, or providing services to the homeless.

But sadly, the Mitchell Scholarship is now threatened, as the State Department has decided to eliminate 100 percent of its contribution -- an annual total of less than $500,000 -- just in time to endanger next year's selection process. This small figure amounts to nothing more than a rounding error in the context of our federal budget. The U.S.-Ireland Alliance, the nonprofit organization that created the scholarship, is working to build an endowment that will sustain the program in the long-term, obviating the need for U.S. government participation. But slashing these funds at this sensitive time in the selection process is a stake through the heart of a program that has helped each of nearly 150 future American leaders experience their own Marie Mulholland moments.

Just five weeks before I met Marie, I was in a park in Johannesburg, South Africa, interviewing an anti-apartheid and feminist activist named Lebohang Pheko for my master's thesis. Lebohang spoke to me about the implementation of gender protections in South Africa's constitution and its participation in CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).

"You must always ask," she said, "How have the rights secured in the constitution benefited the poorest and most vulnerable women in South Africa? What does CEDAW mean to these women when they only know that they have to choose which child they can afford to send to school?" I was able to meet Lebohang because the Mitchell Scholarship provides a travel stipend that allows scholars to travel beyond the island of Ireland to get a broader view of how their experience on the island fits into the larger world.

I didn't agree with everything that Lebohang or Marie Mulholland told me. But when I look back at some distance from my Mitchell experience, I can see that Marie taught me to ask an important question about inclusiveness when formulating a policy idea and that Lebohang taught me about the messy business of implementing a policy and the hard work of ensuring that noble words on paper turn into tangible progress for the most marginalized.

Both encounters have served me well in thinking through policies to help Americans working to make ends meet at a time when a top U.S. priority is strengthening our middle class and enhancing our economic competitiveness. And it is thanks to the George J. Mitchell Scholarship that I was able to have those encounters.

I well understand the need to make tough choices about the allocation of budget resources as we seek to tackle our long-term deficits. But with one of the president's stated goals being to "out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build" the rest of the world, eliminating an investment that broadens the perspectives of future U.S. leaders and builds global ties in public service, science, business, and the arts seems penny-wise and pound-foolish. The State Department should act now to reinstate funding for the Mitchell Scholarship.