The State Department’s decision to eliminate funding for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program is harmful to Maine and harmful for foreign policy.
Twelve years ago, a small nonprofit organization called the US-Ireland Alliance started offering scholarships to American students for graduate study in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The scholarships were named in honor of Senator Mitchell’s brokering of the Northern Ireland peace agreement.
The State Department recently informed the alliance that it will stop funding the Mitchell Scholarship, thus preventing a next class of scholars from being selected in the fall.
The scholarship has opened doors for Mainers. Growing up with a single mom in Scarborough, I never thought I would be able to engage in graduate study abroad. The Mitchell Scholarship gave me an opportunity to study the Northern Ireland conflict in Northern Ireland, work with a political party leader who helped draft the Good Friday Agreement, and put on a civil rights conference with Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume.
The Mitchell Scholarship also honors the monumental contribution of a great Mainer: a contribution that after decades of violence helped a society build a working, democratically elected, shared government. That contribution was further underscored by the recent handshake between Queen Elizabeth and former IRA leader Martin McGuinness. For his contribution to the peace process, Senator Mitchell is revered on the island of Ireland, where, for example, Queen’s University Belfast made him its Chancellor.
The Mitchell Scholarship also substantially contributes to U.S. foreign policy interests.
By encouraging study in Ireland, the Mitchell Scholarship has fostered close ties between the island and the U.S., substantially adding value in business, scientific research and the arts. For my own part, I’ve traveled back to Northern Ireland, spoken at my university, written in Irish newspapers, and been visited in the U.S. by friends and associates I’ve made there.
But the program is about much more than Ireland. Members of my class of Mitchell Scholars are emblematic of the positive effect the program has on wider foreign policy.
My classmates have served the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan, developed legal institutions in Indonesia, worked to build peace in Sri Lanka, conducted HIV research in Tanzania, and taught religion in Iraq.
These initiatives represent just a small fraction of the overall contribution 13 classes of Mitchell Scholars have made to U.S. interests in peace, development and democratic values.
All this added value comes from a program run by two staff members, at a cost representing a minuscule portion of the Department of State’s budget.
The federal government is currently facing many tough calls on which programs to fund. But this one is not a tough call at all. The State Department should reinstate the Mitchell funding immediately, or Congress should make sure it happens. I hope Maine’s representatives in Congress will work to ensure that this valuable program, named in honor of a great son of Maine, will continue.
Benjamin Cote is from Scarborough and attended Cheverus High School. He studied Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Ulster in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, as a Mitchell Scholar. He is currently an attorney in Washington, D.C.