Frequently Asked Questions

Barbara Alper

The Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia University seeks rising leaders from around the world who meet the following criteria:

  • Have a proven commitment to service and leadership within a community, region or country outside the United States, coupled with a demonstrated commitment to return to these communities following their completion of the program and apply their enhanced training, skills and connections on a long-term basis for the benefit of these communities
  • Are emerging leaders who have made meaningful contributions to their field and are now at a “tipping point” in their careers
  • Are fluent in English (verbal, written and spoken)
  • Have the ability and inclination to positively shape the future of their community
  • Have a demonstrated commitment to humility, integrity, inclusivity, stewardship, fearlessness, imagination and teamwork

The Obama Foundation Scholars Program is a full-time program, running for the duration of the academic year from August through May. Prior to arriving in New York, Scholars will be asked to take part in some online activities, though these are not full-time commitments. In addition, Scholars will be expected to engage in various activities led by the Obama Foundation throughout the year. Upon return at the conclusion of the program to the countries and regions where they work, Scholars will be expected to play a role in the broader international Obama Foundation network, participating in Obama Foundation events and efforts, though these activities will not interfere with full-time jobs.

No. Scholars must commit to participating in the full program for the entire academic year.

No. This is a full-time program in which active and engaged participation is key to creating a meaningful experience, so Scholars will not be permitted to continue their current job during their participation in the program.

No. Scholars are expected to reside in New York City for the academic year.

Yes. During certain portions of breaks, Scholars will engage in program activities with Columbia World Projects and The Obama Foundation.

The 2021-2022 application will open in summer 2020. Please visit our application page for more information.

Interested applicants must complete and submit an application through the Obama Foundation Scholars Program online application system. Applications will be reviewed by a selection committee.

Yes. Obama Foundation Scholars must be fluent in reading, writing and speaking in English. Scholars are expected to be able to read and comprehend complex texts, work in teams, give oral presentations, draft memos and reports, understand academic lectures, engage in classroom discussions and build networks — all in English. Applicants whose native language is not English are required to demonstrate proficiency in the English language by submitting scores from one of three exams: The internet-based or paper-based exams of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL); the International English Language Testing System (IELTS); or the Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic). No other exams will be accepted.

This requirement is waived for applicants who:

  • have completed an undergraduate degree - not a master's or graduate degree - in a country where English is an official language;


  • have previously taken the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE exams in the last five years and scored at or above the minimum requirement of 100 (TOEFL-IBT), 600 (TOEFL-PBT), 7.0 (IELTS), or 68 (PTE Academic). If applicants qualify for a waiver under this exception, they must upload a scanned copy of their score report to the online application to ensure their application is eligible for review. If they did not score at or above the required minimum or no longer have a copy of their old results, they must retake an English proficiency exam.

The Obama Foundation Scholars Program covers the following costs:

  • Monthly stipend to assist with living expenses in New York City
  • A furnished studio apartment within walking distance of Columbia University
  • All tuition and fees for up to four courses at Columbia University
  • Basic medical, dental and life insurance for the duration of the program
  • Air travel to and from home country and any program-related activities

Applicants with spouses/partners and/or children are welcome to apply, but the Obama Foundation Scholars Program will only cover costs associated with the Scholar and will not cover costs for family members or partners. Housing allowances and stipends are fixed at a single Scholar rate. In general, family members will not be permitted to travel with Scholars on Program-related trips throughout the year. The Program will provide assistance for obtaining visas only to Scholars.

No. The Obama Foundation Scholars Program is a non-partisan, non-political program that is not affiliated with any political party or entity. We are looking for Scholars who will bring a diverse set of perspectives to the program.

Scholars participate in an immersive program that brings together academic, skills-based and experiential learning, designed by Columbia University in consultation with the Obama Foundation. A cornerstone of the program includes a required course, which will run for the length of the academic year. Scholars will also have an opportunity to select and enroll in additional courses offered by Columbia University that are relevant to their specific field or values-based leadership, or that fill in gaps in their previous studies. Scholars will also participate in workshops to develop practical skills to enhance the impact of their work. Previous workshop topics include conflict management and resolution, public speaking, data analysis and interpretation, and resilience. The program also takes advantage of the unique opportunities that come with being at one of the world’s most important centers of research and with being in the City of New York. Throughout the year, Scholars will have opportunities to engage with thought leaders and practitioners from public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

In addition to participating in the Columbia University-led elements of the program, Scholars are also expected to engage in a unique set of activities led by the Obama Foundation in New York City, Chicago, and possibly other U.S. locations.

Scholars will also have the opportunity to lend their experience and expertise to Obama Foundation programs focused on training the next generation of leaders. Scholars will work with the Obama Foundation to tailor an action plan to remain engaged with the Foundation upon their return to their home countries or regions.

No, this is not a degree-granting program. Obama Foundation Scholars who complete the Columbia University program will receive a certificate of completion from the Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia University.

The program is appropriate for individuals from a variety of educational backgrounds. At Columbia University, the Scholars will participate in a year-long, rigorous, immersive program that brings together academic, skills-based, and experiential learning, designed by Columbia University in consultation with the Obama Foundation. The program will provide individuals who have a proven commitment to service and leadership with the tools they need to make their efforts more effective and give them the opportunity to apply their skills and knowledge to tackling real world challenges. Scholars will also have the opportunity to build connections with a network of leading practitioners and rising global leaders, taking advantage of the unique opportunities for engagement that come with being in the City of New York.

After completing the program, Scholars are expected to return to the country or region of the world where they have been working and continue along a path of service, either through a full-time job or volunteer activities.

Yes. Upon returning to their countries and regions, Scholars will become part of the powerful global community of Obama Foundation Scholars. Scholars will have the opportunity to continue to actively engage with the Obama Foundation as program alumni.

Yes. The Obama Foundation Scholars Program is designed for individuals with a history of and future commitment to living in and making significant contributions to communities, countries, or regions outside of the United States. American citizens and residents who fit these criteria are welcome to apply, however preference will be given to leaders from outside the U.S.