Members of the Obama Scholars New York and Chicago cohorts celebrated the end of their year-long academic and leadership experience.

The Obama Foundation Scholars Program will give rising leaders from the United States and around the world who are already making a difference in their communities the opportunity to take their work to the next level through an immersive curriculum that brings together academic, skills-based, and hands-on learning. The Scholars Program empowers individuals with a proven commitment to service with the tools they need to make their efforts more effective, to identify innovative solutions to complex global problems, and promote change through values-based leadership.

The program will build lasting relationships among emerging leaders who are committed to working together to solve the most pressing challenges of our time, thereby creating a global network that reaches across issues and borders. After completing the program, Obama Foundation Scholars will return to work on their global issue of focus and implement their personalized action plan to accelerate positive change within their community. They will also have an opportunity to play a role in the Obama Foundation’s efforts to inspire, train, and connect rising leaders from around the globe.

The application period for the 2021-2022 cohort of Obama Foundation Scholars at Columbia University has closed. Please click here to learn more about the program and to stay updated on future application cycles.

We are pleased to share that, for the first time, we are extending the application for the 2021-22 cohort of Obama Scholars at Columbia University to U.S. citizens and residents who are making significant contributions to their communities or regions within the United States, in addition to seeking leaders from around the world.

Note: While our hope is that the 2021-22 Obama Foundation Scholars at Columbia University will reside on-site in the City of New York, there is a possibility Scholars will participate in the program remotely from their home countries and communities, due to COVID-19. We will continue to monitor the trajectory of the pandemic to ensure it is safe for Scholars to travel to and reside in the City of New York.

Read on to meet the third class of Obama Foundation Scholars who hail from 11 countries around the world!

You can get to know our previous classes of Obama Foundation Scholars and see highlights from their time together here.


Columbia University

Obama Foundation Scholars at Columbia University will participate in Columbia World Projects, an initiative that mobilizes the university’s researchers and scholars to work with governments, organizations, businesses, and communities to create tangible solutions to real-world issues. The program will also take advantage of the unique opportunities for engagement that come with being at one of the world’s most important centers of research and residing in New York City.

Scholars participate in an immersive program that brings together academic, skills-based and experiential learning, designed by Columbia University in consultation with the Obama Foundation. In addition to the activities taking place on the Columbia campus, the Obama Foundation offers a robust curriculum of leadership development, hands-on training, networking activities, and mentorship throughout the academic year to help the Obama Scholars gain the real-world skills, tools, and experiences they need to expand the impact of their work when they return home. 

 Key components of the program include: 

  • A Weekly Seminar that runs the length of the academic year, exploring questions in tandem with key global trends including inequality, technological developments, the diffusion of power, population movements, and climate change. 
  • Personal and Professional Development Workshops designed to strengthen practical skills to enhance Scholars’ ability to lead. Previous workshop topics include conflict management and resolution, public speaking, data analysis and interpretation, and resilience.
  • An Experiential Learning component that engages Scholars in the work of Columbia World Projects.
  • Audited Coursework that provides Scholars with the flexibility to select and enroll in up to two graduate level courses each semester at Columbia.
  • A Thought Leadership Speaker Series that introduces Scholars to seasoned practitioners from the NGO community, and philanthropic, governmental, and international organizations to expand Scholars’ networks and perspectives to help advance their work.
  • Partnership with a Columbia faculty adviser selected for their subject matter expertise to provide Scholars with new insights and perspectives to inform Scholars’ work.
  • Meaningful opportunities for Scholars to contribute to the intellectual life of the campus and gain exposure to different perspectives by engaging with the Columbia University community.

The Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia University is accepting applications for the 2021–2022 program until February 5, 2021 at 5:00PM ET.  You can learn more and apply here!

Have questions about the program? Read our FAQ sheet for more information.



Chief Alchemist, Zeroth Labs

Tackling social and economic inequities by supporting developing countries and cities as they translate underlying system dynamics into impactful public policy.

Bernise Ang is Principal and Chief Alchemist at Zeroth Labs, a systems innovation lab addressing complex problems whose frameworks have been adopted by the Singapore government and the United Nations Development Program. Her cross-disciplinary approach utilizes her expertise in systems science, foresight method, and behavioral science to address the complex challenges faced by partner governments and institutions with which she works. Bernise also founded a youth development nonprofit Syinc, whose alumni have gone on to become Forbes 30Under30 and Ashoka Fellow awardees. In international policy, she co-created processes for the development of civil society policy positions at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.



CEO, Mind Lab

Increasing access to quality education and preparing youth in underserved communities across Jordan with skills for today’s challenges through content development and experiential learning.

Hamza Arsbi is the founder, director and project manager of the Mind Lab, a youth hub that focuses on advancing education through scientific experiential learning. Over the past six years, the Mind Lab has developed ten curricula and reached over 8,000 students in seven cities around Jordan. Hamza oversees the design and implementation of educational projects that engage children of refugees and underserved communities. He also works closely with local and international government agencies on sociopolitical policy and methods for integrating design-thinking into operations.



Information Commissioner

Enhancing South Sudan’s governance by ensuring the public’s Right of Access to transparent information and by strengthening the country’s rule of law.

Nicodemus Ajak Bior is a former child soldier and an advocate for accountable governance and the rule of law in South Sudan. As South Sudan’s first Commissioner for Information, Nicodemus has built an oversight agency tasked with upholding the right of access to information for every citizen. The Commission is committed to engaging the public in governance, combating corruption, and promoting transparency and accountability in both private and public institutions. In this role, Nicodemus monitors and documents public authorities’ compliance with laws, provides recommendations for governmental reforms, and spreads awareness of the right to information among both administrative officials and the general public. By advocating for public access to information, Nicodemus works to minimize governmental corruption, promote efficiency and accountability, and increase the public’s ability to fully participate in the country’s governance.



Founder, National School of Journalism and Public Discourse

Nurturing, inspiring, and training the next generation to become courageous and professional journalists who are committed to justice, truth, pluralism, and liberal democracy in India.

Timothy Franklyn is the founder of National School of Journalism and Public Discourse, Bengaluru (NSoJ), which he established in 2015 to produce journalists who are committed to justice and democracy in India. NSoJ strives to transform the news media industry in India by training a generation of journalists with the tools and perspectives to act as agents of change. NSoJ prepares its students to pursue truth in a less than perfect world, recognize the wider contexts in which issues are framed, and communicate this to the public in a responsible, balanced, and fair manner.

Prior to founding NSoJ, Timothy worked as a corporate finance lawyer in New Delhi, Singapore and Hong Kong, PRC at some of the world’s most prestigious law firms. He has advised governments, corporations, and global investment banks on international corporate finance. Timothy received an LL.M (Master of Laws) degree from the London School of Economics (LSE) and is qualified as an advocate in India and as a solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales. He has published several articles in The Financial Times, and has contributed a chapter on leadership in young organizations in the Palgrave Macmillan publication “Leadership and Role Modelling: Understanding Workplace dynamics” (2018). He also serves as a trustee of The General K.S. Thimayya Memorial Trust and is a member of the Ethics Committee and Institutional Review Board of Bangalore Baptist Hospital. Timothy is a cancer survivor who lives life to the fullest, including by studying Biblical texts, hosting The NSoJ Tannoy Podcast, playing cricket and fronting an alternative rock band.



Founder & Managing Director of YY Ventures

Accelerating social innovation by supporting socially and environmentally conscious young entrepreneurs who are committed to reducing poverty, unemployment, and carbon emissions.

Shazeeb M Khairul Islam is the Founder & Managing Director of YY Ventures, a social business company founded in Bangladesh to build, accelerate, and invest in social businesses that are moving towards a world of three zeros – zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero carbon emission. Before founding YY Ventures, Shazeeb led the establishment of Bangladesh’s first independent social business incubator, ‘YY Goshti,’ which has backed 36 social entrepreneurs since 2016 who have impacted the lives of more than 100,000 people. Previously, Shazeeb was the Founding Country Director of YGAP in Bangladesh, an innovative international development nonprofit, where he supported 30 social entrepreneurs. He has also worked as the Bangladesh Country Advisor at Give2Asia, a U.S. based non-profit, where he helped build and sustain innovative collaborations between philanthropic investors and vetted community-based organizations that are addressing the most pressing issues at the local level.



Former Policy Advisor, Oxfam

Advocating for responsible and conflict-sensitive investment in developing countries by convening evidence-based dialogues between stakeholders, and by empowering local communities to participate in decision-making processes.

Yaqian Liang formerly worked as a policy advisor at Oxfam, where she advocated for sustainable, inclusive, and conflict-sensitive foreign investment in developing countries, with a focus on Chinese investment in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. While supporting communities to develop strategies to defend their rights, Yaqian strived to facilitate evidence-based dialogue between communities, civil society, companies, and policy makers across borders to ensure inclusive growth. Ultimately, she aims to work across ideological divides to explore new paths towards development that are compatible with respecting human rights. Previously, Yaqian worked for Greenpeace as a Climate and Energy Campaigner to curb China’s coal consumption and to fight for environmental justice.



Advocate for the protection of civilians from armed conflict

Engaging global coalitions to create collective action campaigns to protect civilians from armed conflict across East Africa.

Davis Makori formerly worked as the Advocacy and Campaign Manager at Crisis Action, an organization that works as a catalyst and coordinator for coalitions working together to protect civilians from armed conflict. Based in Nairobi, Davis helped coordinate global campaigns by engaging coalitions and networks of civil society organizations to protect vulnerable civilians in conflict situations across Africa. In this role, Davis helped coordinate strategic and innovative campaigns and advocacy initiatives involving grassroots civil society organizations as well as regional and global civil society to convince policymakers to take action to protect civilians.



Executive Director, Zorig Foundation

Empowering the next generation of young leaders in Mongolia by improving their access to quality education and employment.

Maralmaa serves as the Executive Director for the Zorig Foundation, a leading Mongolian non-profit organization that is widely known through its activities and programs for the advancement of democracy, youth and education, and community development. Before becoming Executive Director, Maralmaa was the Zorig Foundation’s Programs Coordinator; in this role, she developed innovative programs to empower marginalized communities including rural women and unemployed youth. Maralmaa has dedicated her career to supporting young Mongolians by advocating for their participation and inclusion in democracy and leadership.



Researcher and practitioner in Urban Planning

Innovating participatory urban planning by leveraging local governments’ capacity to promote gender equality and climate action in the making of resilient cities of the future.

Flavia Maia is a public servant and urban planner at Agenda Teresina 2030, a local government strategy aiming to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in a climate hotspot in Brazil. Flavia works in the intersection of urbanism, gender equality, and climate action, and she leverages governments’ ability to promote participatory approaches in the making of resilient cities. Flavia is helping to raise more than USD$100,000,000 in investments for the sustainable development of her community, impacting nearly 900,000 citizens. Previously, Flavia was a lecturer and a researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a PhD Guest Researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.



Former Chief of Staff of the Gender and Sexual Diversity Institute of the Buenos Aires Province Government

Fostering the implementation of intersectional gender mainstreaming policies in the public sector to reduce gendered economic inequality and prioritize Indigenous populations.

Inés Palacios served as Chief of Staff of the Gender Institute of Buenos Aires Province Government, Argentina between 2017 and 2019, where she worked in the planning and implementation of Buenos Aires’ first Gender Mainstreaming Plan, which included 16 policy initiatives and impacted two million women. Recognizing that previous policies were limited to addressing only gender violence, the Gender Mainstreaming Plan focused on addressing other gender inequalities in reproductive rights, economic policies, and political participation. Ines also led the implementation of a leadership training program for women in government funded by the InterAmerican Development Bank. Previously, she served as Senior Advisor to the Under-Secretary for Planning & Policy Coordination for the Province of Buenos Aires Government. Inés has also served as a Coordinator of Feminist Strategy at the 2019 Governor’s Electoral Campaign. She is also a member of “La Generación,” a youth political group from where she advocates for the protection of the Indigenous population in Argentina.



Head of the Office for Community Participation, Municipality of the 8th District of Budapest

Supporting community participation and social justice in cities.

Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi is the Head of the Office for Community Participation at the Municipality of the 8th District of Budapest. In January 2020, under the leadership of the Mayor of the 8th District of Budapest, Tessza launched a new Office for Community Participation that is helping to increase engagement in civic life of some of Budapest’s most disenfranchised citizens, aiming to cultivate their deeper sense of belonging and ownership of their local government. Tessza is also the co-founder of the School of Public Life, a grassroots education and research center that aims to rebuild Hungarian democracy by supporting the active citizenship and critical public engagement of adults in Budapest. As the only organization of its kind in Hungary, the School offers free courses to individuals and civil society organizations in areas such as advocacy, activism, and community organizing, engaging 800 students and 120 organizations every year. In 2009, Tessza also co-founded a grassroots housing advocacy group called The City is for All, which has been mobilizing homeless people and their allies for housing rights.

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