Making History Together: Strengthening the U.S.-Irish Relationship | Commentary

The United States and the island of Ireland have had a storied transatlantic history. The George J. Mitchell Scholarship is one way we honored this legacy, a vibrant reminder of the U.S. senator who brokered the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The scholarship enabled students and leaders to serve as modern-day ambassadors and stewards of the U.S.-Ireland relationship.

Unfortunately, the program’s funding has been eliminated in the budget recently released by President Barack Obama and the State Department. If we’re not careful, we could lose the scholarship and this opportunity to further strengthen the bond between the U.S. and Ireland. The program’s current fate is in the hands of Congress.

Since 2001, the scholarship had enabled more than 150 students to travel to the island of Ireland for advanced study. Students attended institutions in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway and other locales, earning post-graduate qualifications in fields ranging from law to neuroscience. The program was highly competitive, with fewer than 5 percent of the applicants selected.

The Mitchell Scholarship was more than just a one-year experience: It was about lives changed and opportunities opened for cross-cultural understanding. The Irish Independent has written about the “enduring influential network” of Mitchell Scholars who connect the two countries. In recognition of the scholarship’s value, the governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland have given financial support. The scholars make lifelong friends on the other side of the ocean, a few of which have turned into happy marriages. Mitchells have also made their mark on academia. Among them are Rhodes Scholars, doctoral students in programs around the world and faculty members at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Reed and other universities. Nick Johnson, a 2005 Mitchell Scholar, continued his studies in Ireland and is currently a drama professor at Trinity College Dublin.

There is no typical Mitchell Scholar. Jimmy Soni, a 2008 scholar, is currently the managing editor of Huffington Post. Soni used his Mitchell year to study politics and credits his time in Ireland as an inspiration for his first book, Rome’s Last Citizen. Another scholar, Melissa Boteach, coordinates the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress in D.C. Her year in Ireland studying social identity galvanized her desire to fight poverty here at home. Benjamin Bechtolsheim, a 2013 Mitchell Scholar, studied for an MBA and led a team of Irish business students at University College Dublin to a national victory in a recent business competition. Benajamin wrote regularly for the Financial Times during his Mitchell year and now works in San Francisco for Google.

The State Department argues that there are other programs of study in Ireland and says Ireland’s small population means that it is adequately covered by these programs. Of the more than 150 Mitchell Scholars, many are working in State Department priority areas, such as climate change, human rights, global health and critical languages. Honoring the U.S.-Ireland relationship means training new stewards to carry on the senator’s lasting legacy. Several Mitchell Scholars presently work at the State Department, and others have served in the Armed Forces. One of the current scholars, Jonathan Poole, came to the island after being named a Brigade Commander at the U.S. Naval Academy. Other Mitchell Scholars actively engage communities through emerging business development, social enterprise and direct action.

Put simply, the State Department is defining the benefits of the Mitchell Scholarship too narrowly. The next chapter of the U.S.-Ireland relationship is yet to be written. The Mitchell Scholarship honors a legacy and gives us new leaders to help build our shared future. Rep. Michael H. Michaud, D-Maine; Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., and other members of Congress are pushing for continued funding for the Mitchell Scholarship. Let’s hope they prevail.

Tommy Tobin was a 2013 George Mitchell Scholar, studying for a MSc. at the University College Cork. He is currently a joint student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Georgetown University Law Center.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Rep. Michael Michaud's name and incorrectly identified which state Christopher Murphy represents.