Eisenhower Fellows seek lasting impact

By Leslie Williams

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Ted Abernathy has connections.

If the economic development manager is ever in a quandary, he has a network of people worldwide to help him troubleshoot, problem solve and strategize.

Through the Eisenhower Fellowships USA program, Abernathy and 26 other professionals working in and around Research Triangle Park have had the opportunity to travel and benefit from the expertise of their worldwide counterparts.

The results are lasting, with a network of hundreds of professionals worldwide, in all areas of learning, who can help one another affect change in their home regions.

The Eisenhower Fellowships identify leaders in fields such as business, religion and nonprofits, and finance their travel and living costs in foreign countries where they gain a new perspective professionally.

The first fellowship program began in 1953, sponsoring fellows each year from as many as 25 different countries.

The USA Program began in 1954 and was extended to RTP in 1999 through the program’s Regional Initiative.

The area is joined by Philadelphia and New England, with a new hub planned for St. Louis, Mo.

Eisenhower trustees introduced the program in RTP because they believed the community was in a position to benefit from international exposure, says Erin Hillman, the senior program officer in charge of the USA Program.

“It’s a place where people didn’t have the same fellowship opportunities as a place like Washington, D.C.,” Hillman says. “The community is small enough that we felt like we could have an impact.”

The program now is at capacity in RTP, says Hillman, with just one fellow selected annually to travel from the region.

In addition to funding from the program’s headquarters in Philadelphia, the program receives support from a number of local funders, including the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

Abernathy, who works for the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, used his fellowship to spend two months in Ireland in 2001.

As an economic developer, he was interested in studying how that country ushered its economy out of the manufacturing age in the 1990s.

On returning to North Carolina, Abernathy began meeting with other fellows from the area to develop myriad plans for improvement, and the group decided not to focus on one project, but to spread its expertise out across a number of initiatives.

Abernathy says he has active projects with about half of the 26 other RTP fellows on undertakings like technology development and road management. Collaborating on those types of group projects require building knowledge, establishing trust and taking action, he says.

“We already have the knowledge and trust from the fellowships,” says Abernathy. “So we can cut right to taking some action.”

While the fellows have gained much from others, they have also sought to give back where they can.

Last fall, the RTP fellows hosted a group of fellows from Northeast Asia to talk about trade and entrepreneurship in the era of globalization.

Hillman says this dynamic is integral to the fellowship program.

“Alumni fellows have been really active,” she says of the RTP region. “The goal is that the fellowship doesn’t end once the fellow comes back and that they continue to stay active in the network.”

While Abernathy’s own focus has been on the economic life of the region, he is quick to point out that the benefits of the program run deeper than that.

“All of the fellows have sort of dug into the community,” says Abernathy. “The depth of a community is defined by philanthropy. I’ve become a disciple now of trying to build philanthropic depth and capacity to sustain the community.”

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