The ALA Bezos Scholars Program

I remember sitting in the chair, basking in the warm Colorado sun, during one of essential lessons on leadership by Mark Hoffer, our mentor and teacher during the Bezos Scholars Program in Aspen, Colorado. My body was still suffering from the ill and inevitable effects of jet lag and an aggressive caffeine rush triggered by excessive coffee drinking. Despite this, my mind was alert and eager to practice the forgotten art of still listening in this modern era of myriad technological distractions. “Absorbing information and lessons from the Aspen experience will be like drinking water from a fire hydrant. You’ll learn a lot of information in a short period so, get prepared!” said Mark Hoffer. I was ready (or rather I thought I was) for the prestigious and much talked about Aspen experience. I had traveled over 9,500 miles, encountered numerous time-consuming security checks, passport verification, stamps, long lines, missing baggage and the most repeated question a frequent air traveler hears “beef or chicken sir?” to arrive in Aspen, Colorado for this unique and special opportunity.

If you haven’t had the fortunate opportunity to hear about one of the most important leadership development programs offered at the African Leadership Academy, the Bezos Scholars Program is a year-long leadership development program for high school students and their teachers in which these groups and students and teachers are sponsored to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival. 5 students and an educator from the Academy are selected to attend the Bezos Scholars Program alongside 12 exceptional students and their educators from across America (ALA is the only school in Africa offered with this amazing opportunity to join the Bezos Scholars Program). Once the students and teachers arrive in Aspen, they are greeted with the loving Bezos Scholars Program Team; students from ALA, typically come a day before the official start of the Bezos Scholars Program to assist the ALA students and the teacher in acclimatizing to the high altitude and different time zones. This was much needed!

Once all the selected scholars and educators arrive at Aspen, we undergo rigorous training in our leadership, communication, design-thinking and entrepreneurship skills. All this training forces each student and educator to battle against their own preconceptions and paradigms to take action to form new and informed ones. New paradigms, that will facilitate positive global change in the world. To facilitate this process of forming new paradigms, all scholars and educators have the opportunity to attend various informative sessions by influential leaders of global change in various sectors such as arts, science, economics and many more. To give you a sense of grandeur of the type of powerful and inspirational leaders the Bezos Scholars and educators get to meet, as a Malawian Bezos Scholar, I had the privilege and fortunate opportunity to speak with the renowned American political and cultural commentator, David Brooks; CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Susan Desmond-Hellmann and, Estela Naula, another 2016 ALA Bezos Scholar met with an individual who sits on Barack Obama’s advisory group. However, its not only about the leaders you meet in life, but rather how you implement the lessons those influential people shared with you to bring sustainable development in your own community. This is what the 2016 ALA Bezos Scholars Team is planning to do  from 4- 6 March this year.

After the week-long experience, the Bezos Scholars Program assigns all scholars and educators the task to organize a local ideas festival in their own community alongside a USD 1,000 grant. The ALA Bezos Scholars Team are tasked to organize a festival called the South African Ideas Festival at the African Leadership Academy. This year’s South African Ideas Festival is set to become bigger, brighter and better than before with a mission to create a 3-day festival, which brings together innovative and passionate African youths from around Africa to develop and showcase their BIG Ideas for impact. This year has seen the ALA Bezos Scholars Team receive the highest number of applicants ever, for people to attend the South African Ideas Festival. So, this Festival is generating massive interest not only in the South African community, but the Southern African community and Africa at large.

In a book called “The Power of Now”, Echart Tolle writes “When a log that has only just started to burn is placed next to one that is burning fiercely, and after a while they are separated again, the first log will be burning with much greater intensity”. I feel this quote represents the core meaning of the Aspen Ideas Festival which is the collaboration of unique individuals with burning creative ideas, coming together to create a brighter future for the next generation. Now, the ALA Bezos Scholars Team of 2016 plan to bring back the “burning fire” of ideas from Aspen, in order to ignite a fire of change in Africa, within the borders of the African Leadership Academy campus. It’s challenging yet exciting.

For more information on the ALA Bezos Scholars or the South African Ideas Festival, please visit the website for more information.

About the author: Francis Chitawo is a young leader from Malawi, currently in his second year at ALA. His goal is to become a well-rounded and compassionate leader. Read his profile here.


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