An American whose life was changed by a scholarship programme named after the man who chaired the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement has said the scheme must be saved.
The US Department of State intends to withdraw the £315,000 annual funding for the George J Mitchell Scholarship programme.
The scholarship, named after the 78-year-old Maine man, who played a pivotal role in Northern Ireland’s peace process, is co-ordinated by the US-Ireland Alliance.
Every year up to 12 Mitchell Scholars between the ages of 18 and 30 are chosen for one year of postgraduate study in any discipline offered by institutions of higher learning in the Republic and Northern Ireland. The Mitchell Scholars programme provides tuition fees, accommodations, a living expenses payment, and an international travel payment.
The 2013 class of scholars will study in the Republic and Northern Ireland as planned. But if the Department of State does not fund the programme, there will be no selection process for the class of 2014.
Frank McMillan (28), a community organiser based in Washington DC, studied political philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast in 2007/08 with the programme.
“My time in Belfast and in Northern Ireland remains one of the most important experiences of my life and one that continues to shape how I see the world and myself,” he said. “My professors at Queen’s who spent time with my peers and me, working through complex academic texts, as well as the community leaders in north and west Belfast who welcomed me into their homes and allowed me to work alongside them, inspired the community-based work I currently do in the United States.
“I constantly recall my experiences in Belfast to help shape and improve the work I do back home.” Trina Vargo, president of the US-Ireland Alliance, said: “We were simply informed the funding had been eliminated. The timing is the issue. In 2010, the Irish government passed legislation whereby Ireland will match whatever we raise for an endowment.
“We had expected that the USG funding would remain as a ‘bridge’ until we could raise the endowment.”
A petition to save the programme is at www.us-irelandalliance.org