Building a Scholarship Program

“This is the first time a member in my family is pursuing a master’s degree. For me, it means responsibility towards my community, family, my country and the world. I need to make good use of the opportunity to transform and impact lives and be a good representative of Ghana.”

Dorcas Mensah, MasterCard Foundation Scholar, MSc in Africa & International Development

This September, we welcomed 12 bright and inspiring Africans to Edinburgh University through a new partnership with The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. Over seven years, the scholarship programme will provide full tuition to 200 postgraduate (on campus and online) and undergraduate scholars from Sub-Saharan Africa with great potential but few educational opportunities.

I'm lucky enough to lead a team to develop and deliver the scholarship programme at the University. It's such an exciting job and I've loved ever moment of it since it started back in the summer. This is a special group of people - both the team and the Scholars.

In addition to studying full time on courses across the University – our Scholars will benefit from bespoke support and extracurricular activities including summer schools in Edinburgh and Africa, work placements, MCF global convenings, internships, and reflective programming throughout the year.

The idea of transformative leadership is woven throughout the programme.  Described by The MasterCard Foundation as ‘principled leadership’ – transformative leadership is driven by self-awareness and a deep sense of purpose to improve the lives of others.   Shaped by their diversity of life experiences before arriving in Scotland, our Scholars will return home with the tools, knowledge, experience, and most importantly – confidence to make positive and lasting change in their countries as transformative leaders.

The programme is fueled by a small team based in the International Office and Centre for African Studies. We are passionate about building a meaningful programme that not only impacts the lives of our Scholars – but also the wider University community.  We have been working to develop student and staff partnerships across the University that allow us to design, test, and iterate innovative learning opportunities – from our Edinburgh summer school and African work placements to repurposing existing opportunities such as the SLICCs and the Edinburgh Award around transformative leadership.

It’s a great example of what we as a University are capable of. Read more about it on our website.

This blog was also posted at 

Lessons from a Festival

Later this week, I’m starting a role managing a very exciting new project within the University of Edinburgh.  The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program supports Africans from economically disadvantaged communities to study here in Edinburgh. It’s an incredibly inspirational programme that aligns with so many of my experiences and passions. Every aspect of the program is and will be designed around the concept of transformative leadership - full of learning opportunities for students to get their hands dirty, be bold and brave, reflect on their experiences, and make a difference in their community here and back home. I’m looking forward to the challenge, collaborative partnerships, and all the great things that will come from it. And never fear – I will still be Go Jo-ing on the side!

This also means a goodbye. For nearly two years, I have been working at the Institute for Academic Development on a portfolio of various strategic projects around curriculum innovation and student engagement.  I’ve been lucky to work on a range of activities but one of the biggest has been Innovative Learning Week. ILW is the University’s very unique festival of creative learning which has taken place each February for the past five years. Staff and students are invited to play with their learning experience in collaborative and creative ways and this past year – we hosted nearly 275 events throughout the week run by 300 people. We reached 1 million people online and our impact has been great.

In all honesty, ILW has been both a blessing and a curse for me. At a particular low point with the festival, a friend of mine compared it to a bad boyfriend.  But I’m so proud of how we have turned it around and on my last day at the IAD – I made myself a cup of tea, put on my made-for-me Spotify playlist, and gave myself a moment to reflect and share on the lessons from over the years.

Here are a few I’d like to share.

Designing together as an act of trust & faith.  

Over the summer, we collaborated with the dynamic folks over at Snook on Open ILW – a short term project to rediscover and redesign ILW in a way that is meaningful to our University community. We did stakeholder interviews, a design workshop, and a service blueprint which helped inform a new festival manifesto, a new support framework, and a handful of tools for people to make their idea dreams come true.  Not only did this approach of letting people in help us create a more meaningful experience, it allowed us to give ownership away. ILW 2016 was built together. 

More than anything, I think it was about faith and trust. In a big institution – the system doesn’t always necessarily allow us to have this with one another.  By giving people ownership to design something big, it creates a different kind of relationship that we need to see more of in the University and other large organisations.

The process is as meaningful as the final product.

I say this a lot, especially these days but it’s really so true.  I’ve seen it through every project I’ve been a part of and when they are successful – there is a value placed on the process over the final end product. It’s not just about the event delivery or final presentation but about every interaction, experience, email, the style & tone, and opportunity in the lead up and long after. For ILW, we made things with our hands, experimented with new ways to support ideas, took risks, and made mistakes along the way. If we were asking others to do this, we needed to do it as well.

Putting people at the centre of the process is even better.

When we realised that ILW was about people – not just events or ideas – it changed the game for us. It allowed us to better understand the process, experiences, challenges, and opportunities that lay before us. 

Show your work.

I’ll say it again – show your work. How you tell the story of your journey is just as important as the final campaign. When working in a complicated system – we have a great deal to learn from one another about the how. By showing our work, and being open and honest about the process – we learned more, felt less defensive, built a more resilient community, and made better things happen. It might be messier, but it’s more meaningful.

Find joy in your work.  

I talked a bit about this at a Creative Edinburgh event, but it’s something I have come to understand a bit more through ILW and a few other projects this year. My intitial thoughts on this were inspired by a great podcast on On Being about Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest famous for his gang intervention programs in Los Angeles and his connections between service and delight, and compassion and awe. Every bit of work we do is an opportunity to find joy in the work itself and in each other. I find it hard to believe that others will find delight in the experience when we ourselves are not having a bit of fun and enjoyment along the way.  No doubt practicing joy and delight in our work lives is difficult, but ILW has shown me it’s worth it. It helps you keep your head up along the way.


Thank you to everyone at the Institute for Academic Development for the past couple years – the good work you do, the neverending supply of sweets, and the notes of support for my work.  Thanks to Lara and Jon for your support and letting me run with it a bit. Thank you to Silje for coming in late to ILW and being patient and understanding with all the bits of information swimming in my head (hopefully it’s all out now) – it’s been a real pleasure working with you. Thank you to all the amazing event organisers and School Coordinators who have put so much energy, care, and compassion into their work – oftentimes unrecognised. You are my heroes. Thank you to Dave McNaughton for the countless coffees and chats about what we are building and letting me shoot confetti guns, blow up balloons, and be part of something special – I owe you an ‘E’.

Onto the next adventure x 

Photos by the amazing



Show your Work - TEDxPortY Masterclass

I've run three TEDx events and supported four in a mentor/consultant capacity since I moved to Scotland. While this started as a bit of an accident - I've learned a great deal about how TEDx can be a tool for creating transformative spaces.  However, I feel strongly that in order for this to happen - the process has to be more meaningful than the finished product. 

The masterclass is a great example of this.  Since our first TEDx event at the University of Edinburgh, we have used this tool as a way to open up our process and give the speakers a chance to share their talk in progress facilitated by an encouraging and experienced professional. For me, TEDx isn't about an inaccessible stage but instead - a space where brave folks share their stories, whatever their background or experience. TEDx is about the humanity and vulnerability of storytelling.

We ran our TEDxPortobello masterclass last weekend and it was such a special day. 7 of our 9 speakers shared their incomplete talks to an invite-only audience of 40 people. The amazing Mel Sherwood from Grow Your Potential (who has supported our speakers through 1-2-1 coaching) facilitated the masterclass like the pro she is - offering encouragement, useful bits of advice, and fielding comments from the audience.

We transformed the space together. The audience learned more about public speaking and worked terribly hard to give the speakers great feedback to take away.  The speakers were able to practice in front of a room of strangers and get useful feedback on their messages through comments and feedback cards.  And for the team - it was a great dry run of the main show and has given us a lot of confidence in what we have been working so hard on over the past couple months.

The next day we received a note from an audience member which sums up exactly what we are trying to do.

‘And may I just say that I do admire the emphasis on the overall process, that you guys place. It’s possible to consume TED content online as if the events ‘just happen’. Of course this isn’t so, but one benefits from a reminder. And also making the whole process transparent sends the message that the rest of us might even feel emboldened to have a go ourselves at some point.’ Masterclass audience member


You can read the full blog post by the inspiring Eugenia Twomey from Team TEDxPorty here

Photos by Jon Davey Photography and Ellie Morag.

Dear Jen and Jo of 2007

At my leaving party from the Twin Cities, 2007

At my leaving party from the Twin Cities, 2007

My friend Jen and I have known each other for a long time - right before I left for Georgia and shortly later, when she left for Botswana.

It was a huge transition in our lives and nearly 9 years to the date exactly - we are again in a stage of ebb & flow.  We thought it would be an opportunity to write a letter to ourselves back then. Jen wrote a beautiful letter which you can read here. turn.


Dear Jen and Jo of 2007,

What an adventure lies before you.

If I told you what would happen over the next 9 years - you wouldn't believe me.   From the moment you leave America - something shifts and you won’t return.  I often think that if Johanna from 9 years ago knew she wouldn’t return to  America after the Peace Corps - she would be heartbroken. But I can tell you - that it’s okay. The departure and arrival gates become your sacred sanctuaries where you move between who you were and who you are - but in the end, you know in your belly they are the same. They just speak different accents.

You left America to be bold and be challenged.  And my girls, I can tell you - you took advantage of every opportunity to do exactly that. We are proud of you. Through your relationships, your work, and every decision you’ve made - you have been true to yourself (or atleast you got there in the end).  

The adventures, the stories, the bucket baths and solar showers, the countless breakups, words lost in translation, bad mistakes and absolutely brilliant ones, visa interviews, missed trains, Russian invasions, sunburns, job applications, bus trips with a wee Georgian cat, pilots & cocktails, weekend safaris, new nieces, and extremely rewarding work. You will live all these adventures. And you will meet the most wonderful people that you can’t imagine life without.  It’s almost as if you’ve spent your whole life waiting for them.

And you will still be dear dear friends.  In moments of panic or uncertainty or utter triumph  - you will be there for one another through a phone call or flurry of texts. Calling from a hut in Botswana to a Soviet bloc flat in Georgia -  it’s almost as if you both were transported to pub in Minneapolis, yet again.

If I had the chance to give you some advice before you go - it might look a bit something like this -

  • Be bold and I promise, it will lead you down some wonderful paths (that maybe don’t feel so wonderful at that particular moment). Sometimes the boldness is a small step which is so subtle you might miss it - or it's huge and life changing.

  • Take the graceful exit. Sometimes a relationship, job, or experience doesn’t turn out like you expected - that’s okay. You aren’t discounting the value of the person or the experience by walking away - if anything, you are practicing gratitude.  

  • Be gentle. Sometimes things will get heavy and it’s here where you learn the most about yourself. Give yourself time to take a bath, cry if you need, read Jeanette Winterson over and over again, write long letters, or whatever moves you. Make a ritual of it - it heals you.

  • Practice.  Every interaction and opportunity is a chance to practice your intuition. Take advantage of things that are new and scare you - you will learn so much from these experiences that will help your decisions in the future.

  • Find delight and joy in everything you can.  There will be moments of utter sadness and heartbreak - but over the next 9 years you will find so much joy and delight in your life.

  • Your priorities will change. If I told you what changes, you would probably be upset.  But it will happen so gradually that when you realise it - it will fascinate you rather than scare you.

  • Call each other often. Check in, send emails, What’s App messages - whatever you need to do. Make time for one another - you will need it.

  • More than anything, know that you have a whole army of people that love you dearly that are rooting for you. Remember that everyday.

And Jo, a heads up - the Peace Corps did not buy your flight ticket from the Twin Cities so you might want to give them a call before you go to the airport instead of spending hours saying very emotional goodbyes just so you have to stay another night.

x Jo

Loch Awe after Jen left Botswana, 2010

Loch Awe after Jen left Botswana, 2010