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September 2, 2022

Years before setting foot on campus for the first time this summer, Jesse Mendes knew the acronym “ASU” quite well.

Not the ASU that the Sun Devils know about. One he created.

The Mandela Washington Fellows applaud a ceremony at the conclusion of their six-week session at ASU in summer 2022. ASU photo by Mark J. Scarp
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Mendes, 26, did not found his university. He founded the Angola Skateboarding Union, known in his own country as ASU. Mendes and the union built the country’s first skate park to inspire and empower hundreds of young Angolans.

Mendes is one of 24 dedicated, idealistic and creative young African leaders who traveled to Phoenix this summer for an international training program named after legendary South African President Nelson Mandela, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

Another young African leader, Mariama Coneh, also went to Arizona State University this summer for the scholarship. She is a passionate human rights advocate from The Gambia who helps crime victims, children at risk and other marginalized groups find empowerment and justice.

Mendes, Coneh and the other Mandela Washington Fellows came to Phoenix with talent, a history of success and a sincere desire to better serve their communities, said Hector Zelaya, director of executive education at Watts College of Public Service and Community. Solutions of the ASU.

During their six weeks in Phoenix, the fellows learned about American public management and how government and nonprofits serve constituencies. Upon returning to their home countries, they can apply what they have learned in a variety of leadership roles.

From 2014Note: the program did not take place in 2020., the Watts College-based scholarship has hosted established young professionals each year to study public management. The program is designed for leaders from sub-Saharan Africa, aged 25 to 34, who serve the public through governmental and non-governmental organizations, community-based nonprofits or volunteer work.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is the flagship of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a program of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Educational and Cultural Affairs and its executive partner, IREX, empowering young people through academic courses , leadership training and networking.

Zelaya said the fellows learn “the ongoing American experience, strengths and weaknesses.” She said that what makes Scholars’ time in the Valley so rich in information and ideas are the contributions of more than 75 ASU and community members who have volunteered their time and knowledge.

“It takes a village,” Zelaya said of this year’s volunteers. “They have served as coaches, presenters and facilitators. The fellows also learned about various levels of public management and met with representatives from US Senator Mark Kelly’s office, the state legislature, the United States Office of Land Management, the Arizona Department of Administration. , the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Phoenix City Manager.

Satisfying a need through skateboarding

Mendes is a native Angolan who grew up in South Africa for many years, where he said as a 7-year-old boy he met Nelson Mandela while visiting a hospital where the South African leader was receiving medical treatment.

Mendes returned to his hometown with his family, where opportunities for young people were far less than in South Africa. Imbued with a strong motivation to help young people feel empowered to improve themselves and their surroundings, he relied on his love of skateboarding to show them that they can stand out in what they set out to accomplish.

Three men, one of whom holds a certificate, smile for a photo.

Jesse Mendes (center) shows his certificate at a Mandela Washington Fellows 2022 ceremony this summer. Joining him are Hector Zelaya (left), executive education director of Watts College, and Aaron Peterson, curriculum facilitator. ASU photo by Mark J. Scarp

“Angola has very limited resources in sport,” Mendes said. “There is nothing for the local kids, the young people. Just seeing everyone I grew up with skateboarding helped me stay in touch. Growing up, people always had their backs to me when we were skateboarding. “

So years later, in Angola, Mendes came up with the idea of ​​doing something with skateboarding to help young people build trust and gain direction in their lives.

Skateboarding is popular in Angola, but there were no places to safely enjoy the sport. Young people skateboarded the streets while the local government offered no assistance, Mendes said.

The skateboarding union has united fans under one umbrella.

“There were no facilities. There was no voice. Skateboarders have been discriminated against, “he said.” I accepted all those odds and found solutions to combat those odds to create a skateboard union. Through it, more young people could learn that there is a way to be included in the skateboarding union. society and make something of yourself “.

It was hard work, which included raising funds from donors, which required Mendes to write a 62-page proposal. Relying in part on social media, Mendes has traveled beyond his nation’s borders to other countries, including Europe and North America, soliciting and receiving contributions.

The skate park was built in 28 days. Through the union, skateboarding competitions continue to grow in Angola.

Once in Arizona, Mendes didn’t take a break from his efforts. He took the time to travel to Scottsdale to meet the skateboarders there, exchange stories and get information.

“You have a skateboard, you are a friend,” he said.

Also, by a stroke of luck, while Mendes was eating at a Phoenix restaurant, a producer at a local TV station overheard him about his work, which led to a newscast that aired in July.

Mendes said it is a joy to work with the young people of his country.

“The talent they have, the hunger, the interest, the skill level; shocks me, the commitment they have in skateboarding. The way they look at me to motivate them makes me feel good too, “Mendes said.” I work with children in foster families, children without fathers, mothers, abandoned on the street. (Skateboarding) takes them off the streets.

Equipped with many lessons and examples learned from his six weeks in Arizona, Mendes says he intends to expand the skateboard union across Angola, hiring more young people as board members, teachers and coaches. He hopes to build four more skate parks in Angola and one day create the largest skate park in Africa.

“I went to America chasing a dream and people accepted me for chasing a dream. I went to America doing what I love and people accepted me to do what I love, ”he said of the scholarship. “If you want to pursue your dream, you can too.”

Human rights defender on an “international platform”

Coneh, 25, a political science graduate, supports marginalized groups in her country, The Gambia, including victims of human rights abuses and people with disabilities. She has spent more than two years working as a human rights advocate, currently serving as a program associate at the Women’s Victims Empowerment Association.

Through her work in the organization, Coneh has engaged with international and local civil society organizations to defend victims and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.

Woman speaking behind a lectern.

Mariama Coneh, Mandela Washington Fellow of 2022, addresses her cohort during a closing ceremony at ASU this summer. ASU photo by Mark J. Scarp

She said the scholarship attracted her because she and other colleagues could discuss ideas on an international platform.

“They are agents of change in their local communities. Being a young woman, it is difficult to have sponsors for various projects. I was at the basic level; I had just completed my degree, “she said.

The scholarship helped her better prepare for what she wants to do in public management and civic engagement, she said, “somewhere I could improve my skills and become good at public speaking and networking with others. young people from other African countries “.

Coneh said that during her time in Phoenix she received coaching in human rights work and had the opportunity to visit organizations in Arizona that perform functions similar to those she is involved with at home.

“This alone is very important. I am able to better prepare and understand that I am a person who can create an organization, but make an impact. You want to change the lives of the people you interact with, “she said.

Coneh said he also appreciated the scholarship’s opportunity to visit government entities on many levels, from local to national.

He said watching Governor Doug Ducey sign a water management bill at the Arizona State Capitol showed his state officials here are thinking about the long-term future.

“Why have temporary solutions?” she said. “You made me start wondering if we start working on permanent and not short-term solutions.”

Coneh said she intends to apply what she has learned to her advocacy work and transfer her new skills to young people in her community.

She said one of her mentors told her he saw the fire in her eyes about her work and not to let that fire go out. It’s something she said she will never forget. The more she focuses on making an impact, she said, the more her experience of her in Arizona will help her become the leader she wants to be.

“One thing I will keep and tell my children: don’t let the fire in your eyes go out,” he said.

The other fellows were “amazing young people,” she said, who inspired her to want to learn and do more and to broaden her point of view.

“Whenever we had events or discussions about things, everyone had a different perspective. I learned a lot from them. I have been able to learn things in policy analysis that have already changed my perspective on how I want to approach what I do. I’m not the same person I came here with. “

On the last day of the session, Coneh was one of the few comrades invited to give a short presentation to the whole group. Speaking on the topic “Leave no child behind”, he described many problems facing African society and what prevents multiple solutions.

“In Africa,” he said, “it’s not a lack of potential, but a lack of opportunity.”

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a United States Department of State program with funding provided by the United States government and administered by IREX. Arizona State University is a sub-beneficiary of IREX and has implemented leadership institutes as part of the scholarship since 2014. For more information on the Mandela Washington Fellowship, visit the scholarship website at

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