Every salient experience that Miami entrepreneur Leigh-Ann Buchanan remembers having came from travel.

Her early trips to countries in Asia, Africa, and throughout the Americas were no small thing — they helped her make connections with community organizations abroad, build leadership skills, and find a greater purpose in her nonprofit work.

That is why when she worked as a mentor to high school students in Overtown, she saw that many of her students from underserved communities had never left the country. This not only shut them out from having life-changing experiences, she said, but they often missed out on college scholarships because their resumes didn’t stack up to those of students from higher-income backgrounds.

“The experiences that set me apart that helped me never pay for school … were things that were rooted in travel, and ways that I interacted with people,” said 33-year-old Buchanan.

What ultimately led her to found the South Florida-based Nyah Project in 2014 was seeing how a program with a school in Ghana founded by a family friend would often bring students from the U.S. to have cultural exchanges abroad.

“I would always get the newsletters and I would see all these amazing college students that would have great experiences in Ghana, and I was like, ‘Why can’t the kids that I am mentoring in Overtown have these life-changing experiences?’ ” Buchanan said.

Since then, the Nyah Project has funded 10-day leadership trips to 57 high-performing high school students throughout underserved communities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. All 57 have gotten into colleges around the country and over 90% have received full-ride scholarships to college. Nyah fellows have traveled to countries including Indonesia, Namibia, Costa Rica and South Africa.

But the leadership program — which gives students of color the chance to meet with business leaders, U.S. ambassadors, local students and entrepreneurs — is not just a short vacation. The application process is highly competitive. Eligible students must have at least a 3.0 GPA, have demonstrated volunteer experience and live in a household whose family income is under $75,000 annually.

While they are abroad, students also participate in cultural exchange opportunities. They learn about traditional Balinese dance in Indonesia, mentor younger students in Namibia and visit the home of the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Nyah, which is volunteer run, also pairs up the students with career mentors and helps them navigate the college application process in the lead-up to the program and after its completion.

“That coaching is often filling a gap … oftentimes they are the first person in their family to go to college. They may not have that support from home,” Buchanan said. “A lot of our fellows are basically told to go to a local college and not even worry about out-of-state because there’s no one in their immediate circle that can help them navigate that process.”

Kemoni Alexander, 20, was a Nyah fellow in 2017 and traveled to Namibia and South Africa, her first time out of the country (minus a quick family trip to The Bahamas).

“The neighborhood that I grew up in wasn’t the most resourceful, my schools were underfunded,” said Alexander, who grew up between North Miami and Miami Shores. Traveling and getting to know a different culture helped her understand that the lack of local resources existed beyond her own world.

“It’s not just happening where I‘m from, it’s happening all around the world. … That really made me think that we’re all the same, it doesn’t matter where we come from,” Alexander said. “It’s mind-blowing to me that I was able to have that opportunity because other people saw that potential in me and believed in me.”

Alexander was accepted with a full-ride scholarship at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she’s double-majoring in sociology and anthropology, and a politics program.

The program is equally meaningful for the mentors who connect with Nyah fellows. Marvin Wilmoth, a local real estate developer, has been an adviser and fundraiser for Nyah in the past and continues to help students advance in their careers.

“I come from a pretty humble beginning, but had the opportunity … to travel,” said Wilmoth, whose parents migrated to the U.S. from Honduras. “First-generation Americans, we understand that there’s a lot of opportunities out there but if you don’t have anyone to tell you about them ... It’s very easy to overlook them.”

LEARN MORE

To donate to the Nyah project, go to nyahproject.org/donatenow.

To apply to the Nyah Project’s fellowship program, go to nyahproject.org/apply. Applications are due on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.

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©2019 Miami Herald

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