Sabrina Nassih wants to help her home country of Morocco grow by increasing transparency in government funding in her community. While local governments distribute grants to many startups, small businesses, and nongovernmental organizations, there is no data being collected to measure the outcome.

“We don’t know if the taxpayers’ money is having an impact on their lives, and that’s a problem,” said Nassih, a project coordinator for a development nongovernmental organization. “I want to make these institutions and the administration more transparent and more accountable.”

Nassih is one of 16 professional fellows from North Africa who recently visited Southwest Virginia through a U.S. State Department-funded exchange program aimed at building lasting, sustainable partnerships between emerging leaders from foreign countries and their counterparts in the United States.

During their six-week stay in the U.S., the fellows work with companies in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, to gain insights and develop projects they will later implement at home. But first, they get expert guidance through the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center.

“This program is a great example of how we continue to fulfill our land-grant mission of engagement, not only in the commonwealth, but around the world. By connecting the professional fellows to the vast resources and expertise of Virginia Tech, we are creating a solid foundation they can build on to solve problems in their own communities,” said Scott Weimer, the executive director of Roanoke Regional Initiatives, which includes the Roanoke Center. 

Through a partnership with Legacy International — a nonprofit based in Bedford, Virginia, that implements the Professional Fellows Program for Economic Empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa — the Roanoke Center connects fellows with Virginia Tech faculty members and other experts from the university community. A series of professional development workshops helps build their skills on topics such as economic development, workforce readiness, social entrepreneurship, project management, and leadership.

For example, Scott Tate, associate director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, which along with the Roanoke Center is part of Outreach and International Affairs, provided an overview of economic development efforts and innovation across the commonwealth.

“This program represents a comprehensive approach to advancing social entrepreneurship and strengthening the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem across the Middle East and North Africa,” Tate said.

Two men stand together looking at their cell phones.
Scott Tate (at left), associate director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, and Yassine Benbakhta, a startup ecosystem manager at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco, exchange contact information after a workshop on economic development in Virginia. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

Other faculty members include Donna M. Westfall-Rudd, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who discussed how to develop durable skills in employees. Kimberly Carlson, program director in Advancement’s Principal Partnerships Office and an associate professor of practice in the Pamplin College of Business, examined how to move a big idea to the planning phase.

Nassih said the workshops inspired her and provided new ideas, initiatives, and models that she can apply to her community. “They helped me put together a plan and strategies to make my project a reality.”

But while the fellows gain a wider perspective about America, they also bring their diverse global viewpoints to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

“We at Virginia Tech get to learn from and contribute to the success of this incredibly diverse, articulate, and accomplished group of young leaders who are helping to champion democracy, lead social justice movements, and start innovative companies and projects,” Tate said.

Sarah Schneider, Legacy International’s Professional Fellows Program director, said while a large part of the fellows’ time in the U.S. will be spent in cities, exposing them to rural regions such as Southwest Virginia and a large public university are vital parts of their experience.

“We want the fellows to witness greater diversity in the U.S. besides just the urban centers,” she said. “They are all entrepreneurs, small-business owners, or somehow part of the economic empowerment landscape in their home countries of Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, or Tunisia. Many of them have master’s and doctoral degrees, and it’s good for them to understand how the public university system operates in Virginia and how it supports its students, its alumni, and its entrepreneurs — and how it promotes innovation.”

Ahmad Abdelgalil, a fellow from Cairo, said he was struck by the way the university goes beyond education to offer solutions to community problems.

“This has expanded my horizons and widened my gaze on what can be achieved when I go back to my country to relieve our social and economic problems,” he said.

Legacy International also partners with Virginia Tech on TechGirls, an international summer exchange program designed to empower and inspire young women from around the world to pursue careers in science and technology.

A man and a woman sitting at a table with papers and charts in front of them.
Ahmad Abdelgalil (at left) works to bring more women into the workplace in his home country of Eqypt, while Selma Taherti’s startup combines the empowerment of women and environmental sustainability in Algeria. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh at Virginia Tech.
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