Funding Sought for Irish Scholarships as European Ties Loosen

Tuesday, 25 Mar 2014 03:42 PM

By Andrea Billups

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Some members of Congress are calling for restoration of funding for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program, a prestigious study and exchange program to benefit U.S.-Irish relations.

In deciding to eliminate funding, State Department officials told Mitchell Scholarship administrators that Europe was being deprioritized by the Obama administration.

Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat representing Maine's 2nd District, is circulating a memo urging lawmakers to sign a petition sent to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs urging it to continue fiscal year 2014 appropriations funding for the competitive scholarships -- a request of $485,000.

Michaud called the program "critical" and one that helped to strengthen diplomatic ties to Ireland and Northern Ireland as student leaders commit to study abroad. Without the federal support, and failing a replacement of those annual funds, the future of the program is in jeopardy.

"The State Department's decision to eliminate funding threatens to undermine the Mitchell program and sends a damaging message of disengagement to important U.S. partners on the island and Europe in general," Michaud wrote in a letter to the subcommittee's chairwoman, Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, and its ranking Democrat, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York.

Michaud added: "We recognize that Senator Kerry arrived at the department too late to have an imprint on this budget. Knowing of his own longstanding support for the Mitchell program, we hope that he will soon transmit a reprogramming request on this matter."

The program is administrated through the non-profit U.S.-Ireland Alliance. Its president, Trina Vargo, told Newsmax that the budget for the scholarships was typically renewed via continuing resolutions, as no appropriations bills have been passed for several years.

"We've got this scholarship that is arguably the most prestigious and sought-after scholarship in the country," Vargo said of the program's success, which she dubbed on par with the prestige of the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford.

Each year, 12 students, ages 18-30, picked through a national scholarship competition, spend a year in the Republic of Ireland or in Northern Ireland in a labor-intensive post-graduate program that offers them both study and cultural opportunities. They are chosen for strong academics as well as service to community and must undergo a rigorous interview process as they demonstrate their intellect and leadership potential.

The program honors the service legacy of former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, who chaired the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland as a special adviser to President Bill Clinton and negotiated the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put an end to decades of violence and conflict.

Mitchell, who served as a U.S. senator for 15 years before retiring as Senate majority leader, most recently was the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, a post he held from January 2009 to May 2011.

Vargo fears the program is, in part, a victim of the current administration's global priorities shift.

"The State Department has said that we don't care about Europe anymore. To say that now is a ridiculous proposition, especially with what has happened in Ukraine," Vargo said.

Vargo noted that in the 1980s, when Ireland had a troubled economy, the United States rallied to send funding. By the 1990s, as Ireland's economy had improved and fewer Irish were moving to America, interest waned. Now, with another generation moving up in leadership, Ireland is "off their radar."

Vargo said maintaining a crucial tie with such a long-term ally is worthwhile and starts with the current generation's becoming more engaged with interests beyond U.S. borders.

"It's a value to get Americans who are going to be our future leaders outside this country," she said. "Only one percent of American students study abroad — and the number of Chinese students going abroad to study is shooting up exponentially. We're sort of stagnant in this space of sending people overseas to study. It's a bad thing. We need to develop these relationships."

Vargo noted that President Barack Obama continues to seek help from Europe in imposing sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine.

"It's almost like they take Europe for granted and I think Europe is feeling that. It's not a wise policy," Vargo said.

Michaud noted the program's importance in his letter seeking help.

"The international profile of the Mitchell program is a source of pride for the governments, educational institutions and people of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Scholars meet with the Irish prime minister and president, political leaders in Northern Ireland, and many business and cultural figures from both parts of the island," Michaud said.

"Mitchell scholars return to the U.S. with a wealth of first-hand knowledge and experience, which will benefit the relationship between our countries for years to come," he added. "It is worth noting that five Mitchell scholars, three with Arabic language proficiency, currently work for the Department of State on issues that are priorities for State."

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