In 1953, to celebrate President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first birthday in the White House, a group of Pennsylvania businessmen established an international leader exchange program to honor Ike’s devotion to world peace. Led by Thomas B. McCabe, an industrialist and former Federal Reserve Chairman, they created a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization, governed by a board of trustees whose members included presidents of IBM, B.F. Goodrich, Chairman of G.E., a governor, U.S. Cabinet Secretary, U.S. delegate to the U.N. and 7 university or college presidents. Ten years later, the president described the program as “possibly the most splendid birthday present I have ever received.”
The Eisenhower Fellowships differed from existing international scholarship and exchange programs because the Fellows, both from overseas and the United States, were not students or faculty, but mid-career professionals who had already achieved leadership positions. Bi-national committees abroad nominated candidates from fields identified by the country representatives as critical to national needs. International Fellows, accompanied often by a spouse, pursued extended itineraries throughout the United States, designed to include not only meetings with their professional peers but also social and cultural experiences, to offer a rounded picture of the country. American Fellows traveled abroad, sometimes for nearly a year.
Through more than 50 years Eisenhower Fellowships has responded to momentous changes in the world with adaptability and resourcefulness, while retaining its core values. It remains true to its founding vision, providing a program non-partisan in both the domestic and international sense, focused on promoting the growth of proven leaders, and responsive to the needs and aspirations of each individual.
The first group of Fellows, 13 from overseas and three Americans, began their fellowships in late 1954. In the program’s first decade, the size of yearly Fellow cohorts increased and the number of participating countries more than doubled, including in their number several newly independent nations. The high-powered EF Board of Trustees threw its influence behind vigorous yearly fundraising efforts, and in 1956 a ten-year $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, a rare coup for an untried organization, provided prestige and momentum.
As had been suggested by the first Fellows, each year’s program included at least two seminars where Fellows met and shared experiences. Yearly newsletters and three international alumni conferences strengthened the bonds among old friends and created new linkages. A second Ford Foundation grant in 1967 encouraged EF to experiment with larger programs.
By 1975 there had been 549 Fellows from 86 nations. In 1976, as the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial, 101 Fellows from 56 countries convened in San Francisco for EF’s First World Forum (see photo to the left). Impressed by the loyalty and engagement of the alumni group, EF trustees named five international Fellows to the board, and since that time there have always been trustee Fellows. In 1977, in a move that greatly strengthened the program’s leadership, EF appointed President Gerald R. Ford as its president. He would later serve, from 1980 to 1986, as chairman of the board.
When EF had difficulty raising funds to meet mounting expenses during the early 1980s, President Ford and John Eisenhower were able to work out a solution: in 1984 the U.S. Congress authorized a $7.5 million grant to cover fellowship expenses for seven years. The trustees then launched a five-year capital fund drive, the first in EF history, and they directed the staff to expand the program’s size and scope. The first initiative was to add a second program each year to complement EF’s signature Multi-Nation Program, which granted only one fellowship to each participating country. In the fall of 1986, six Fellows from the Philippines inaugurated the first Single Nation Program. In 1989 the USA Fellow Program resumed after a 26-year hiatus, leading EF to commit to three programs and 50 Fellows a year.
In 1990, the capital fund drive surpassed its $7.5 million goal and EF celebrated the centennial of President Eisenhower’s birth at its second World Forum in Philadelphia. Over two hundred Fellows from 63 countries enjoyed four days of socializing and substantive discussions. This enthusiastic response inspired the Turkish Fellows to hold a reunion conference the following year. In the next 18 years, 11 more countries from Ireland to Indonesia hosted EF meetings. That same year, legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Dole and Representative Pat Roberts established a permanent endowment to honor President Eisenhower, under which EF would receive the yearly interest earned on a $7.5 million federal trust fund.
Now financially secure, EF was able to respond to the dramatic world changes. A Single Nation Program for Poland in 1991 and a Single Area Program for the Czech Republic and Slovakia the next year, along with the addition of Bulgaria and Romania to the list of active countries, quickly established EF’s strong presence in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. In 1994, after South Africa elected its first truly democratic government, EF ran a South Africa Single Nation Program for nine Fellows drawn from that country’s major ethnic groups and geographical areas. Later in the decade, the personal efforts of President George H.W. Bush, then EF chairman, enabled two programs for China, reflecting that country’s size and growing influence. As the century ended, EF was planning programs for Russia and India.
One innovation brought sharper focus to the USA Program. In 1999, a blue-ribbon committee in North Carolina’s Research Triangle region launched EF’s first Regional Initiative, whereby Fellows from the region would travel abroad and later, as alumni, host international Fellows visiting the area.
With the chairmanship of Henry Kissinger and later General Colin Powell, EF’s sixth decade brought significant developments. The success of the North Carolina initiative prompted EF to organize further initiatives in Pennsylvania, New England and, in 2007, St. Louis. Today, USA Fellows can choose their fellowship destination from a list of 27 countries on six continents. While the Multi-Nation Program continued (although much shorter than in the early years), new projects supplemented the Single Nation Program. Regional programs, three for Asia, and one each for Latin America and the Middle East, reflected an emphasis on international linkages, as did two Common Interest Programs: “Challenges in Urbanization” in 2007 and ”Fueling Growth” in 2009. To further integrate the Fellows into all EF activities, USA Fellows participated in both programs.
Since the late 1990s, EF has given high priority to the maintenance of an active network of alumni. An online Directory of Fellows and regularly-updated news on the EF website augmented the usefulness of the network, and overseas alumni conferences in Singapore, Istanbul, Dublin, Malaysia, Brazil, and France reinforced a sense of common identity and purpose. Alumni Associations in 28 countries foster a sense of EF pride and generate substantive activities. In 2008, the Eisenhower Day of Fellowship was initiated to renew the fellowship experience, increase the impact and visibility of Eisenhower Fellowships, and commemorate the founding of the organization. The most recent EF Day celebration included 19 overseas celebrations and four at the U.S. hubs.
In the fall of 2010, EF will sponsor its first Women’s Leadership Program, bringing together some 20 distinguished women from around the world.