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The Experiment launches a global career that connects World Learning’s IVLP to HBCUs
February 21, 2023
Dr. Lenneal Henderson, a professor at Virginia State University, has traveled the world throughout his career. He says it is “all part of The Experiment’s basket of blessings.”
Dr. Lenneal Henderson knows exactly when his life changed forever. It was the day after he graduated from Lowell High School in 1965. That was the day he boarded a Greyhound bus to take him from his hometown of San Francisco across the country to Virginia. Ten days later, he was bound for Genoa, Italy, by boat with The Experiment in International Living.
Several months earlier, his World Literature teacher Gayle Leyton — whose parents were Holocaust survivors and impressed upon her students the need to see the world — had raced down the school hallway shouting, “You won! You won!” Henderson, fresh off the baseball field, assumed she was referring to their recent victory over rival Lincoln High.
He learned instead he had won a full scholarship to The Experiment. He just needed to find a way to Virginia. Up to that point, Henderson had never been out of California, but his parents were adamant he seize the opportunity.
The bus trip was an adventure in itself, and he remembers being impressed that the president of Hampton Institute — which today is the historically black research institution of Hampton University — greeted him as he exited the bus.
For almost two weeks, Henderson and other students from around the country stayed in Hampton’s Dubois Hall to take a conversational Italian course before departing for Europe. This, too, made an impression on the young Henderson.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, taking Italian at a Black university. That’s fantastic.’”
Once in Italy, Henderson made his way from Genoa to Brescia, 60 miles east of Milan, to the home of the Salvioni family.
“We just all fell in love with each other,” Henderson says, remembering everything was “an experience within the experience.” The Salvionis had multiple generations living together, and they took him to visit the Alps on a ski trip and made him try polenta and wild rabbit.
He still communicates with the family through texts and emails, and in 2007, when he was at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy for work, he decided to rent a car and drive the 90 miles to Brescia.
“I found the grandchildren, who still live at the same address, and we just all burst out and started crying. We hadn’t seen each in person all those years,” he says.
In addition to his host family, Henderson says his Experiment group — nine students led by group leader Richard Johnson — made a lasting impact on him.
“The other highlight of my trip was the group itself,” he says. “When you get into groups like this, there are inside people and outside people. And being the only African American in the group, I was kind of an outside person almost automatically.
“The person I got closest to was a young lady in the group whose father was the president of ChaseManhattan bank.” Helen “Ginger” Roberts (now Berrigan) and Henderson bonded over their shared love of books and are friends to this day.
Following their time in Italy, Berrigan’s family invited Henderson to visit their home in New York. He remembers the lemon meringue pie — his favorite — and the gift of “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran with an inscription from Ginger’s mother. It still sits on his bookshelf today.
Berrigan and Henderson parted ways while she went to the University of Wisconsin, and he went to the University of California, Berkeley. But Berrigan ended up practicing law in New Orleans, Henderson’s birthplace and where much of his family still lives. She even came to his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration held in New Orleans.
Henderson believes he and Berrigan, who was appointed a federal judge by former President Bill Clinton in 1993, impacted each other in different ways. He remembers that first trip to her home in New York as “overwhelming and incredible” and believes she became involved in the civil rights movement because of him.
“This is all part of The Experiment’s basket of blessings,” Henderson says. “It leads in all kinds of directions.”
Because of his Experiment trip, Henderson chose to major in political science and international education. He went on to earn his master’s in political science and public administration, as well as his doctorate in political science.
His postdoctoral research — conducting five case studies about appropriate technology practices in India and Africa — was funded by the Ford Foundation through Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Henderson is certain it was his Experiment experience that secured him the research funding. As part of his sponsorship agreement, he had to lecture to Johns Hopkins students in Bologna, Italy. He happily agreed to this stipulation.
After, he joined the faculty of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC, where he became involved with a U.S. Department of State speaker series program and traveled around the world to speak about federalism.
“I went out some 15–20 times over a 10–12 year period, and again, that experience was because of The Experiment,” he says. “It shaped my life. Nothing can be done for me and by me without a global context.”
Henderson’s teaching career took him to Tennessee and North Carolina before he returned to the Mid-Atlantic, where he taught at the University of Baltimore for 25 years. Today, he is an adjunct professor at William & Mary and a senior fellow and eminent scholar at Virginia State University where he is teaching three courses this semester.
For several decades, Henderson has also done briefings on federalism for World Learning’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), an exchange program funded by the State Department. World Learning has implemented IVLP since 1986, and each year, it designs and leads programs in the U.S. for more than 800 emerging leaders from more than 140 countries. In addition to providing briefings, Henderson recently helped World Learning’s Senior Program Officer Anthony Zaun connect an IVLP delegation from African universities with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Specifically, Henderson arranged networking meetings between the delegation and students, faculty, and administrators at Virginia State, a historically black land-grant university. The delegates also toured the university’s farm, as well as met with Petersburg, Virginia, officials, council members, and the mayor.
“The IVLP participants said the visit to Virginia State University was ‘the highlight of their three-week program,’” Zaun says.
Henderson notes that many African university administrators and faculty are very interested in Africana studies and the African diaspora and how HBCUs are connected to that.
He also believes it was important for Virginia State faculty and officials to learn about the African regional model like the Eastern and Southern African Management Institute in Arusha. HBCUs have been interested in this model, as it has similarities to the clustering strategies being considered by many historically black institutions.
“They were immediately exploring with each other ways they could sustain their relationships and broaden their networks and coalitions,” he says, adding that the areas of collaboration have widened.
“I think the areas of interest are going to get broader going forward, like in the information and data science fields. HBCUs are making great advances at the same time the African universities are. They are already connecting virtually,” he says. “And one of the things that was intriguing to the African visitors was that in our school of agriculture, we use drone technology to monitor water levels and crops.”
“This IVLP project exemplified the power of exchanges and the IVLP, specifically,” Zaun says. “The opportunity for the African participants to visit Virginia State, an HBCU, sparked personal and professional connections through the sharing of experiences and expertise, and forged lasting relationships to address issues that are important to all.”
Henderson sees his involvement with World Learning’s IVLP program as a natural extension of the academic research and professional work he has done on a global playing field his whole career. This, he says, is due to The Experiment and the impact it had on him nearly 60 years ago.
Would he recommend the program to students today?
“Absolutely. Not only would I recommend it, but I also keep a fund on the side to offset costs for students,” he says, adding that he thinks studying abroad is important for any student but particularly for students of color.
“More and more cities where African American and Latino students are living are globalizing. No American young person, growing up in any area, rural or urban, can escape what is happening in their community that is attributed to global trends.
“Now, in my view, it is mandatory that they have some sort of exposure so that they can understand the things that are happening to their immediate circumstances and communities that have a global link.”
For Henderson, The Experiment was his opportunity of exposure that broadened his worldview and shaped his life’s work — work that is now benefiting students, colleagues, professionals, and practitioners around the world.