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Trupin '13: The African student's burden

As we anticipate the arrival this fall of the most geographically diverse group of admitted students ever to enter Brown, a moment presents itself to reflect on the aims of internationalism at Brown and on the experiences that face students from abroad. Specifically, I want to talk about what awaits students from sub-Saharan Africa.

In January 2008, President Ruth Simmons and Israeli businessman Idan Ofer jointly announced the establishment of the Advancing Africa Scholarship Fund, a program to financially support African students attending Brown and both require and facilitate the application of their acquired skills in their home countries after graduation. As part of a larger initiative known as Focus on Africa, Ofer's gift of $5.75 million became one of several facets in one of the administration's newest projects — to include sub-Saharan Africa in efforts to make the University more globally connected.

In the same year the new scholarship was announced, Simmons attended a three-day conference titled "The University Leaders Forum: Developing and Retaining the Next Generation of African Academics" in Accra, Ghana.

The fact that Simmons was one of only four representatives of a U.S. university at the conference — and the only university president — speaks to the depth of Brown's interest in African tertiary education. Yet perhaps even more than Simmons' decision to attend this conference, it is the content of Brown's input and its ramifications for African students at Brown that deserve attention. Quoted by news agency Modern Ghana, Simmons said, "Students must move across the educational system easily and resources must be at their disposal to enable them to upgrade their knowledge in areas such as science and technology and embarking on research."

These words speak to the expectations that rest with African students in higher education. Taking stock of challenges including the lowest college enrollment rates in the world and the ever-present brain drain of highly educated individuals toward economies in the Global North, the educators, leaders and analysts who met in Accra sought to define investments in higher education that could drive development in sub-Saharan Africa. Among the recurrent themes was the need for advancement in science and technology education "to develop informed policies and pursue sustainable development" and the need to create viable employment opportunities and other incentives for highly educated people to stay in their home countries.

As a representation of the dialogue over education and the future of African development, the statements that were produced at this conference are indicative of the climate that surrounds African students, including those at Brown. Unambiguously, the expectation exists that African students will gain expertise relevant to their countries in science and technology and that upon gaining these skills, they will return and put them to good use in their countries of origin. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, put it bluntly: "Those who receive (higher education), therefore, have a duty to repay the sacrifice which others have made. They are like the man who has been given all the food available in a starving village in order that he might have strength to bring supplies back from a distant place. If he takes this food and does not bring help to his brothers, he is a traitor."

African students feel this scrutiny. As Advancing Africa Scholar Dominic Mhiripiri '12 once said in an interview with The Herald, "I need to be exemplary for those who I had to deal with, work with, live with in Zimbabwe — I need to be someone they can emulate."  

Clearly, much is at stake for students from sub-Saharan Africa entering institutions like Brown. But what does this mean at Brown, with its traditions of liberal learning and the New Curriculum? The website of the Dean of the College states, "Our open curriculum ensures you great freedom in directing the course of your education … by cultivating such openness, you will learn to make the most of the freedom you have, and to chart the broadest possible intellectual journey." Is it possible for students to chart their own broad intellectual journey if the purely utilitarian gathering of knowledge for the advancement of their society is an obligation?

I would not claim for an instant that Simmons, Nyerere or any speaker from the University Leader's Conference is wrong or that the burden of expectation is unjust. As the son of someone who holds a doctorate and was educated in Nyerere's Tanzania, I too feel this responsibility. No one can deny that Africa desperately needs qualified professionals and academics, including those with backgrounds in the sciences and technology — not to suggest that the arts and humanities may safely be omitted from African scholarship. But this burden must be recognized and reconciled with the proclaimed values of the University to an extent that it currently is not.

A strong community of support must exist at Brown. This community must go beyond celebrating the presence of African students and scholars with lectures or cultural events. It must facilitate greater cohesion between the communities of African undergraduates and graduate students, faculty and the initiatives of the administration.


Ian Trupin '13 is a COE Organizational Studies concentrator and will finish articulating what he wants in two weeks' time.



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