Photo caption: Signs indicating the direction of the various campuses of the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, near Dublin in Ireland. (Chris Maddaloni/AFP/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, Ireland — When Trina Vargo was working as foreign policy adviser for Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1990s, she noticed how many people within the administration of Bill Clinton, including the president, had ties to the United Kingdom because of their time as Rhodes scholars.
The Pennsylvania native decided to institute a similar program with Irish universities, “to educate future American leaders about the island of Ireland and to provide tomorrow’s leaders with an interest in, and an infinity with, the island from which 38 million Americans claim descent.”
The George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program which she founded, named after the former U.S. senator who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process, is now celebrating its 10th year. Listed by The New York Times as one of the six most prestigious scholarships a young American can receive, 120 Mitchell Scholars have to date spent a year studying at universities in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Though not on the scale of the Rhodes scholarship program, which annually brings 30 American students to Oxford University in England compared to 12 Mitchell scholars invited to Ireland each year, it has gained a high profile on both sides of the Atlantic.
“From a U.S. perspective, it is important for us to have future leaders who have spent time living in other countries and understanding other perspectives,” said Vargo in an interview from her office in Arlington, Va. The future relationship between the two countries, she maintains, should be based on “education, culture and business — not nostalgia, leprechauns and green beer.”
Trina has successfully recruited leading Irish and American politicians to her cause. Last year’s class of Mitchell scholars was given an end of term send-off by Irish President Mary McAleese at a reception in the Irish Government guest house, Farmleigh, in Dublin. Referring to them as “cherished honorary members of our global Irish family,” McAleese noted the importance of the future of the U.S.-Irish relationship relying on contemporary understanding rather than nostalgia.
“You are not the same people you were when you took the plane to Ireland and scattered after orientation to your respective universities,” she said. “You have each gleaned utterly unique and different experiences and insights, made friends and discoveries enough to enrich a lifetime. You know Ireland better and you know yourselves better for being alone in an unknown place ... . We know that the links you have formed with Ireland will make you stronger, the U.S. stronger and Ireland stronger.”
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Run by the non-profit U.S.-Ireland Alliance of which Vargo is president, the Mitchell program is supported financially by both the U.S. and Irish governments.
“The U.S. government provides the bulk of the annual funding but there are also contributions from companies and the Irish/Northern Irish universities are partners,” she said. “We plan to build a permanent endowment for the program [like Rhodes] and the Irish Government recently has passed legislation to match whatever we raise, up to 20 million euros [$25.5 million], toward that goal.”
The scholarships allow U.S. students to undertake one year of postgraduate study in any discipline offered at Irish universities. Each of the nine universities in the Republic and the two in Northern Ireland have given a commitment to accept up to two Mitchell students each year while waiving tuition fees and providing accommodation. The scholars also each receive $11,000 toward living expenses.
“An average of 300 Americans apply each year for up to 12 scholarships, making it extremely competitive,” said Vargo.
One of the Mitchell class of 2004-2005, University of Virginia graduate David Buckley of Baltimore, recalled that competition for a Mitchell scholarship among his fellow graduates was intense. He spent his time at Queen’s University, Belfast, where he benefited from “a combination of classroom excellence with field experience” in his study of the interface between religion and politics.
His Mitchell year, he said by telephone from College Park, Md., helped him to be accepted by Georgetown University to study for a doctorate on the same issue.
While peace studies is an obvious focus for scholars in Ireland the profile is changing and last year ranged from neuroscience and music therapy to playwriting and immunology. Trinity College Dublin is a favorite destination as it is ranked among the top 50 universities in the world.
Vargo maintains that the U.S.-Ireland Alliance is keeping alumni connected to the island and to the program. “Seventy percent have already returned to Ireland or Northern Ireland since they returned from their year as a Mitchell Scholar.”
Outspoken on sensitive Irish-U.S. issues such as undocumented immigrants, Vargo has ruffled the feathers of some leaders of the Irish American community, and there has been criticism in Ireland of the money spent on the Mitchell scholarships at a time of education cutbacks.
Vargo said the program has served to put Irish and Northern Irish universities on the map in the U.S., and that she knows of several people who did not win a Mitchell “but then decided to go to a university in Ireland as a paying student.”
The Mitchell Scholarships complement the Fulbright Program, the U.S. government’s educational exchange program which awards some 4,500 grants annually to American academics to study and teach in over 140 countries. Under Fulbright, which is also supported by the Irish government, three American post-graduate scholars will come to Ireland in the next academic year, while 23 Irish academics will study in the U.S.
The year-end reflections of the class of Mitchell Scholars that just left Ireland can be found here; click on "view reflections" for each scholar.