Columbia World Projects Announces Next Cohort of Obama Foundation Scholars

June 18, 2019

Today Columbia World Projects (CWP) announced the second cohort of Obama Foundation Scholars at Columbia University, 12 rising changemakers from around the world who will hold a year-long residency with CWP on campus for the 2019-2020 academic year.

The program’s aim is to empower emerging leaders with a proven commitment to service with the tools they need to make their efforts more effective and have a deeper impact upon their return home. During their year at Columbia, scholars take part in professional workshops, audit courses, build networks on campus and around the city, and work with staff at Columbia World Projects to design and implement projects that use university research to create tangible solutions to real-world issues.

“This program captures the essence of why Columbia University is such an inspiring institution,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. “The Obama Foundation scholars already have dedicated their lives to civic-minded projects that are helping to address problems in different regions around the globe. The academic year they will spend on campus is designed to strengthen their impact, individually and collectively — while the scholars’ larger-than-life presence will enhance the experience of every member of our community. In just one short year, the Obama Foundation Scholars program has come to embody the essence of a global university located in New York City.”

“The Obama Foundation Scholars program exemplifies the mission of Columbia World Projects: to address global challenges by more closely connecting the extraordinary work being done at universities with the world,” said Nicholas Lemann, Director of Columbia World Projects. “We look forward to welcoming these twelve impressive leaders to campus in August, and to teaching them, and learning from them, during the next academic year.”

The Obama Foundation Scholars program was launched in 2018, with the inaugural class of scholars recently completing their year on campus. Each scholar developed, with the guidance of Columbia and Obama Foundation staff, an action plan and approach that they are now taking back to their home regions to scale up their work and reinvest in their communities. In addition to the cohort at Columbia, another group of scholars participates in the program at the University of Chicago.

The 2019-2020 Columbia University Obama Foundation Scholars are:

Ali Almurtadha

Ali Almurtadha


Researcher, Mwatana for Human Rights

Defending human rights through the documentation of violations against civilians and conducting advocacy efforts locally and internationally to shed light on the conflict in Yemen.


Ali Almurtadha works as a central researcher at Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemen-based organization working on documenting human rights violations committed by all parties in Yemen. He produces statements, reports, and short films to promote human rights ideals and defend civilians with the goal of encouraging discourse around rule of law and transitional justice.

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Edmond Byaruhanga Atto


Senior Software Engineer, Andela

Co-Founder, Arvana

Encouraging the growth of technology and innovation in Africa by providing pathways for youth to learn software development skills.

Edmond Atto is a Senior Software Engineer at Andela where he produces The Andela Way, which provides access to free content for people looking to get started with software development and currently receives more than 6,000 unique daily visitors a month. Edmond is also the Co-founder of Arvana, a mobile application providing a digitized physical addressing system for Uganda as a means to increase access to critical infrastructure and services in the country.

Kirsten Brosbol

Kirsten Brosbøl


Former Minister of Environment and Member of Parliament

Working across political and geographic divides to foster collaboration around concrete actions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals - for a more equal, just, and green future for all.

Kirsten Brosbøl is a former Minister of Environment and Member of Parliament of Denmark. She served in government for more than 14 years, during which she founded and chaired the Danish All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Sustainable Development Goals. Her approach focused on involving civil society, the business community, academia, and municipalities in Denmark’s implementation efforts around Sustainable Development Goals. She is currently focused on continuing to engage international bodies to link local and national efforts around these goals with regional and global implementation initiatives.


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Mor Efrat


Director of the Occupied Palestinian Territories Department, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel

Advocating for health care access for Palestinian patients who need to leave Gaza and the West Bank for treatment and educating groups around the barriers in the current permit system.

Mor Efrat is the Director of the Occupied Palestinian Territories Department at Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, an NGO promoting the right to health in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Through individual advocacy support for patients and broader policy work around the health care profession, Mor works to lift the obstacles that prevent access to health care for patients living in the West Bank and Gaza. In one of the major challenges for Palestinian patients - the freedom of movement - the department Mor leads is able to overturn the denial of permits in more than half of cases.

Giselle Castro

Giselle Garcia Castro


Film Director and Producer

Using film to expose pressing social issues and support the freedom of expression and collaboration for positive social change in Cuba.

Giselle Garcia Castro is a Cuban independent filmmaker who has worked extensively within Cuba’s fast growing independent film community, which plays a critical role in balancing state controlled media production and supporting freedom of expression. Her documentaries have tackled concerns within underrepresented sectors in the island and complex social processes - including education, environmental protection, and private entrepreneurship in Cuba - and she screens her work for specific audiences who play a relevant role in policy making.

Natalia Herbst

Natalia Herbst


Director for Community Organizations, National Youth Institute, Ministry of Health and Social Development

Developing youth-centered public policy focused on social inclusion, health and rights, culture and employability so that young people are empowered to define their own goals and reach their full potential.

Natalia Herbst served as Director for Community Organizations at the National Youth Institute of Argentina where she worked on youth-centered public policy-making focusing on social inclusion, health and rights, culture and employability. One program she led, #AcáEstamos, has reached more than 350,000 youth through partnerships with 1,800 grassroots organizations, strengthening supportive communities in the country’s most vulnerable areas. Over 1.5 million youth use Hablemos de Todo, a digital platform designed to engage in conversations around and provide information on topics including sexual and reproductive health and rights, substance abuse, and suicide prevention. Her work has focused on shifting paradigms around government engagement with youth through innovations in language, topics, and perspectives.   

Ruth Kissam

Ruth Kissam

Papua New Guinea

Director of Operations, Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation

Fostering collaboration between stakeholders and government on the implementation of policies related to Sorcery Accusation Related Violence.

Ruth Julie Kissam is a community organizer and a human rights activist focusing specifically on areas of Sorcery Accusation Related Violence (SRV) in Papua New Guinea. Currently she is the Director of Operations for the PNG Tribal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works in areas of maternal health, education, women, and gender issues. In this role, she led the Senisim Pasin Film Campaign, a multi-year national campaign that has been specifically designed to change thinking and cultural attitudes about how women are valued in Papua New Guinea. Ruth’s prior work focused on addressing law and order issues around illegal settlements, including a lack of education and gender based violence in illegal settlements in Papua New Guinea.

Samira Koujok

Samira Koujok


Human Rights Researcher

Working with civil society organizations and families of  missing persons to enhance their capacity to address the issue of the missing and promote an accountability process in Syria.

Samira Koujok is a human rights researcher from Lebanon whose work centers around the evolution of  human rights discourse post-2011, with a focus on missing persons from the Syrian conflict. She works closely with Syrian family associations and civil society organizations to address the issue of missing persons by identifying key stakeholders and building capacities of families and civil society organizations to safeguard the rights of families of the missing and empower them to advocate for their rights. Ultimately, the mission of her work is the adoption of a rule of law approach in investigating disappearances and promoting justice in Syria.

Peter Kwame Mwakio

Peter Kwame Mwakio


Co-founder and Programs Director, Hatua Network Organization

Promoting equal opportunity in Kenya by providing promising, low-income students with scholarships, mentoring, and career guidance that prepares them for careers and to serve as a link between their community and professional networks.

Peter Kwame Mwakio is a Co-Founder and Programs Director at Hatua Network Organization. Through Hatua Network, he is providing scholarships, mentoring, and career guidance to 500 students from low income families. He has graduated 70 students who have returned to their communities and are contributing to the economic development of their communities and country. Over the next five years, he aims at expanding Hatua Network to cover all four locations of Mombasa, serving a population of 1.2 million residents and plans to provide scholarships to 1,600 students annually and graduate 200 students from university every year.

Wai Wai Nu headshot

Wai Wai Nu


Founder and Executive Director, Women Peace Network

Founder, Yangon Youth Leadership Center

Empowering young people and women from marginalized communities through programming that builds peace and mutual understanding among diverse groups in Myanmar.

Wai Wai Nu emerged from seven years as a political prisoner to become a human rights advocate and the founder of two organizations. Through the Women Peace Network, Wai Wai works to build peace and mutual understanding between Myanmar’s ethnic communities and to empower and advocate for the rights of marginalized women throughout Myanmar, and particularly in Rakhine State. Her work also aims to reduce discrimination and hatred among Buddhist and Muslim communities and to improve the human rights of the Rohingya people. To engage youth in the peacebuilidng process, Wai Wai founded the Yangon Youth Center - a space where young people from diverse backgrounds can come together to learn, share, and explore their ideas and promote leadership in social, political, and peace-building policy making.

Isaiah Owolabi

Isaiah Owolabi


Co-founder and Project Director, HACEY Health Initiative

Leveraging an innovative capacity building, advocacy, research and education (iCARE) approach to implement solutions and drive accountability to create a healthy and productive society for women and girls.

Isaiah Owolabi is the Project Director and Co-founder of HACEY Health Initiative. HACEY Health leverages a multisectoral, multi-pronged, and inter-generational approach to significantly improve the life outcomes of women and girls. The “Hands up for HER (Health, Empowerment and Right)” initiative of HACEY has focal points in 13 states in Nigeria that carry out activities and have distributed over 25,314 birthing kits, provided HIV/AIDS counselling, testing and referral service for at least 10,000 women and provided over 20,000 long lasting insecticide treated nets. The “Back on Track” program has helped place more than 150 girls in vocational training and paired over 200 girls with mentors. The “Connecting Voices Against Gender Based Violence” program of the initiative has reached more than 100,000 young girls using web and mobile technology. Through their Code4impact program, they have provided media and digital skills training to over 1,000 women and girls.

Christian Vanizette

Christian Vanizette



On a mission to engage millions of citizens to solve the global goals through community organizing and technology solutions.

In 2010, Christian took a sabbatical to travel the world and find out how social entrepreneurs use technology to solve social and environmental issues. As he travelled, Christian organized a small community of citizens committed to support social entrepreneurs through skilled volunteerism and rapid innovation workshops. This organic community was the beginning of Makesense. Makesense is now a community of 100,000 citizens who support 3,000 local initiatives tackling the Global Goals in 100 cities and 45 countries. Makesense and its 80 employees work to scale those local initiatives hosted on the platform by partnering with forward looking companies and governments across the world.