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Before her graduation from high school, Tariro Mupombwa had never owned a passport.

With a retired mother and a father who passed away in 2000, Mupombwa spent all of her youth in Kadoma, Zimbabwe.

And by her senior year, Mupombwa had given little serious thought to studying abroad.

"It's usually the rich children, people who come from rich backgrounds, who have this opportunity of going outside the country because it's very expensive for you to apply," she said.

But when the United States Achievers Program came to her school, she began to rethink the situation. If selected as a USAP student, all of her application expenses would be paid by the USAP Trust and she would be helped through the college application process by EducationUSA counselors.

So she applied.

"I remember the first day of the USAP program. I didn't even know there was anything called the SATs," she said.

A few months later, Mupombwa became one of the 32 USAP students accepted her year and applied for her first passport.

The USAP network

Arriving at Penn was not as easy for Mupombwa as it is for most Penn students.

In a new country for the first time in her life, her first experience in the United States was losing her luggage.

Her second experience was being greeted by a group of fellow USAP students at the airport, students who then helped soothe her fears about living on a large, urban campus like Penn.

Now a pre-med junior majoring in biochemistry, Mupombwa continues to rely on that network of students. She is one of five USAP students at Penn, with three more arriving in the fall.

And the incoming freshmen are likely to find the same kind of support from USAP that Mupombwa found on her first day in the U.S.

"When someone is a USAP student, no questions asked," said Elizabeth O'Connell, associate dean of admissions. "[The other USAP students] are there to support them."

In fact, the connection between USAP students is so strong that Penn alum Rodney Manzanga, who graduated in 2004 and was part of the first USAP class, comes from Delaware to greet the new students at the airport every year, according to O'Connell.

Though USAP started in Zimbabwe, the program has now spread to 13 countries over four continents since its foundation in 1999. As a result, Penn now also hosts USAP students from Brazil, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

And the program only continues to grow.

The goal of the organization is to help build future leaders and give back to their communities. It helps dedicated, low-income students from around the world work through the college application process.

Once they arrive in the United States, the students help maintain the USAP Trust, a fund that helps pay the college application costs of future USAP students.

They also help run the yearly USAP conference. The 2008 conference was held at Penn last weekend.

The global village

Wharton junior Kuzi Nyadzayo acted as the head organizer of the conference, "USAP and the Global Village," receiving much help from Penn admissions, Mupombwa and Glauber Mosqueita, an Engineering USAP sophomore from Brazil.

The conference brought together students, EducationUSA advisors and international student advisors, all of whom stayed in Harnwell College House courtesy of Penn Housing Services.

"It was an informal conference in a way that people could actually relax and express their views freely," said Nyadzayo.

According to the organizers, it was, more than anything, a way to connect with other USAP students and advisors from around the world.

"Think about being by yourself in the Midwest; you might be the only USAP student, you might be the only students from Zimbabwe," said O'Connell, who played an active role in planning the conference. "Yes, you have the Internet, but this is the only chance to come together with students from your own country."

Much of the conference focused on the key goal of USAP - building leadership and giving back. In fact, the theme of the conference was based on the idea that globalization had expanded the size of "the village" and how that affected social responsibilities.

"It is true that it takes a village to raise a child," said Dominic Munhanga, founder of the Council for Zimbabwe and a speaker at the conference. "But we must change what the village has become today. Most of our village can no longer provide education."

Instead, he said, it has become the responsibility of the global village to become involved.

Keynote speaker Ishmael Beah also spoke at length about responsibility and acting as an ambassador in one's country.

Beah is a former child soldier from Sierra Leone and the author of "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier."

When he first came to the U.S., he was surprised to find how little people knew about his country - so he began to share his experience.

"When you hear the human context, when you hear what life was before the war . people realize that this place is not hopeless," said Beah.

The idea of being an ambassador is familiar to many of the USAP students here at Penn. Mupombwa and Nyadzayo both said that they had encountered many students at Penn who knew very little of their cultures. They worked to help educate them through involvement in the Penn community and exposing them to parts of their culture.

A bright future ahead

Though many USAP students would like to go back home after completing their degree in the U.S., some stay in the U.S. following graduation. Some continue on to graduate schools while others gain experience in the work force.

Nyadzayo is currently interning on Wall Street and has expressed interest in international business.

Mupombwa's dream is to continue on to medical school and stay in the U.S. for a few years to gain experience. Following that, she hopes to open a cancer clinic in honor of her mother, who is currently in remission from cancer, and play a big role in health policy formulation in Zimbabwe.

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