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The Scholarships That Launched the Open Society Foundations

Mary-Jane Morifi

Scholarships were my first introduction to philanthropy.

In 1980, I visited a Zulu friend in South Africa and discovered that conditions in the country were perfect for the mission I had established for my still-emerging foundation, which would work on opening closed societies, making open societies more viable, and promoting critical thinking. Apartheid South Africa was a relatively closed society; its institutions, including universities, were off limits to the majority of the country’s population, which was black.

At the time, the South African government paid tuition for every student accepted into the University of Cape Town. After meeting with a progressive official there, I agreed to pay the living expenses for up to 80 black students.

I confess I was quite happy to help direct resources of the apartheid state to integration. Not long after, I began helping Eastern European dissidents study in the United States, an endeavor that eventually led to my first foundation in that region, in Hungary.

Over the years, the Scholarship Programs continued to grow. We have funded social sciences and humanities students, people studying disability rights, and Palestinians working on the rule of law. From Albania to Zambia, on nearly every continent, more than 15,000 students have benefited from an Open Society Foundations scholarship.

Nearly three decades on, we continue to invest in individuals. Scholarships were the first large program of my foundations, and they will continue to play a big role in my foundations in the future. The ability to engage in critical thinking is an important element of democratic governance in an open society and one I am happy to support.

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