A Tunisian cyberdissident and a Russian blogger may not appear to have much in common, but they were brought together at Yale University in a program drawing elites from around the globe.
Established 10 years ago, Yale's "World Fellows" initiative has lured a diverse group of mid-career professionals deemed to be "emerging leaders" to the prestigious Ivy League school northeast of New York.
Each year, 14-18 people earn the right to spend a semester on the leafy campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Fellows -- whose fees and living expenses are fully funded by the university -- take classes but also offer guest lectures to undergraduates and meet with students to share their experiences.
Program veterans include prominent Chinese AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, who is now living in the United States due to fears for his safety; Lebanese gallery owner Saleh Barakat; and Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado.
"We receive 3,800 applications from the six regions of the world," program director Michael Cappello, an expert on infectious diseases, told AFP.
"Selection is a four-month process. The criteria are flexible -- the most important criterion is our belief that in the next five to 10 years, the candidate will have a national impact as a leader in some field."
Russian blogger Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption whistleblower, took classes on corporate law but also gave lectures about his homeland.
Tunisian cyber-activist Fares Mabrouk said he came to Yale to learn how to launch a "democracy think tank" in his country, but also took a music appreciation course.
"People who will be leaders need to better understand the world globally," Cappello said.
Valerie Rose Belanger, the program's director of partnerships, added: "These are brilliant people in various fields, and the most important thing is they would never have met."
She said the fellows become "role models" for the regular students, who are eager to meet people "who take risks and are practitioners... not academicians as we are here."
Mabrouk lived at Yale late last year, returning to Tunisia in December 2010 -- just before the eruption of the popular revolution that would topple President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and spark uprisings across the Arab world.
"I made friends from India, Indonesia, from all over -- they wrote to me during the revolution, and we're still in contact," said Mabrouk, who is now working with a group of bloggers ahead of October polls to elect a constituent assembly.
For some fellows like Wan, the United States becomes their adopted homeland; for others like Mabrouk, a stay at Yale marks a professional turning point.
In 2007, after his time as a World Fellow, Barakat -- who had owned a gallery since 1991 -- organized Lebanon's first-ever pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale contemporary art festival.
He has also worked with the Tate Modern in London and opened a second gallery.
Turkey's Hakan Altinay launched a project on global civics instruction -- what started as a news article became a book translated into several languages. A documentary is in the works.
And Machado, elected to Venezuela's national assembly in 2010, has been tipped as a potential candidate to battle Hugo Chavez for the presidency in 2012.